Facebook is changing. Again. Over the past two weeks, Facebook introduced us to the news ticker that put, quite literally, all of our friends' activities in a Twitter-inspired, real time feed on the upper right of the page. With the ticker handling most activity, Facebook reorganized the News Feed so that it showed the user "top stories", giving the user the ability to mark what he or she thinks is important content. That's an important shift in thinking for Facebook. Unlike Twitter, Google+ and whatever other social networks people use today, Facebook wants you to focus on what's important, not every single piece of information.
Maybe that's what makes the new profile — rolling out to all users through the beginning of October — so jarring. The new profile also marks a new line of thinking for Facebook, a way of thinking that seems to contradict the organizational changes made to the news feed. While the news feed now curates content and takes away the less important things, the new profile shows more than any Facebook profile has ever shown. The new profile is called Timeline, aptly named because of the timeline on the right-hand side of the page that allows you (or anyone else, depending on your privacy settings) to go to any time in your Facebook existence and view your posts from that time. It reorganizes your old Facebook wall into an image-heavy, modular design that begins with a "cover" photo, or a banner image that goes at the top of the page. This is not a profile picture; instead, it is meant to be the cover of what Facebook has become — a scrapbook of your digital life.
At the end of each year, Timeline attempts to summarize your year in Facebook terms: how many photos you were tagged in and with who, how many friends you made and what pages you liked. I joined Facebook in late 2006 as a sophomore in high school on the front end of the tectonic shift in social network dominance from MySpace to Facebook. I can go back to late 2006 with the click of a button. With the old Facebook wall, I could have scrolled down forever until I got there, but now, Facebook encourages me (and anyone else) to look back at my old self.
Now, Facebook does not display every status update and wall post from the past. It picks "important" updates based on the amount of likes and comments on the post. For example, in December 2009, I was accepted to Northwestern, so I posted a status update announcing my acceptance. It received more likes and comments than most of my status updates, so Timeline featured it on my profile. The user also has the option of hiding any post from the timeline and completely deleting their own posts. But going back through years of content is time-consuming and frankly, a bit frightening. It requires a level of anal-retentiveness that most users of Facebook do not have.
Aesthetically, Timeline is beautiful. The cover image adds a new dimension of personalization to your profile and makes the Facebook profile feel more professional. A meticulously designed Facebook profile could, at this point, serve as a personal portfolio page for those who want an easy way to present their web presence to employers. All of the news stories are emphasized in boxes, placed on the vertical timeline. Images seem more integrated to the page, rather than tacked on and forced. That seems to be Timeline's best selling point: It looks great, unlike most Facebook applications.
Beyond its look, though, the concepts in Timeline are the equivalent of opening Pandora's box for many Facebook users. I have a Facebook Developer account (read: Facebook Gold account) that has allowed me to preview the Timeline profile for a little over a week now, and as I've shown people the new profile, they have all been appalled at the concept of having their entire Facebook life open and available to all. Most college students opened Facebook accounts early in high school, and it's safe to say that most college students are not proud of their 16-year-old selves. What will our now 20-year-old friends say when they see how idiotic we were just four years ago?
Working behind the Timeline interface and the new News Feed is the Open Graph API. APIs are really only understood and used by developers, but essentially, this API allows applications to post seamless updates to Facebook without the user's explicit permission. If you have friends that use Spotify, you may have seen posts on your News Feed saying what they listened to, giving you the option to listen to those songs as well. Spotify is now deeply integrated with Facebook thanks to the Open Graph API, and services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Yahoo! News will soon make similar strides to integrate with Facebook. On the surface, it's actually awesome. As an avid music listener and music journalist, I love that Facebook documents my Spotify listening habits and lists them in compelling ways, much like last.fm has done with my iTunes listening for years. But really, it's a little terrifying that Facebook actually documents everything I listen to and eventually, everything I watch and read.
The social network can take these extreme positions because Facebook has integrated their product so deeply into the Internet that Facebook is becoming unavoidable. We can't just leave Facebook and flock to Diaspora or Google+ like we did with MySpace. Spotify now requires a Facebook account for registration, and soon, they won't be the only popular service to do so. It sounds extreme, but Facebook wants to enter an era where nothing is secret. They want your Facebook profile to be your memory.
Timeline is the type of technology that has the possibility to truly change how people live. It makes Facebook a sort of automated scrapbook that, at its best, allows us to reach deeper into ourselves and our memories. We can study our listening, watching and reading habits; and we can remember how we grew as people and how friendships flourished through time. We can construct a complete digital portfolio of ourselves that recounts our life with visual appeal and stunning detail (really, this is the most aesthetically beautiful thing Facebook has ever designed). At its worst, Timeline is a painful reminder of our mistakes and our weaknesses, a portal for prying eyes (employers, for example) to see things we never meant to be public with ease.
Just as Timeline's power lies in its ability to peer into the past, Timeline's effects are hard to predict without peering into the future. The Timeline profile will never look like it should until people spend years with it, picking the posts they want on the Timeline and using the new embedded media features to their advantage. But as Facebook's influence extends far beyond its familiar URL, the changes in Timeline will be inescapable for a long time. Like it or not, your digital life will be documented, and it will be on Facebook.