Facebook is prodding its 800+ million members to become autobiographers. Each and everyone of us is being forced through its new Timeline profile to see ourselves not as characters who toss ideas and images randomly online, but as individuals whose lives emerge over time.
Setting aside the privacy concerns some have voiced, this is an exciting, even radical change in the way the world’s largest social network is asking its users to see the themselves. Heretofore, social media sites have not forced any kind of chronological view of who we are beyond a somewhat FIFO (first in, first out) approach, where the most recent item you post about yourself goes to the top of the heap.
With Timeline you can post things back in time. That is, you can upload a photo of your college graduation ceremony in the year it occurred, even if it happened before Facebook existed. And the service is smart enough to automatically glean dates from your existing data. So, if you posted information about yourself with dates, they will appear in the right chronology in your Timeline. Jobs. Marriage. Children. Accomplishments. They now can be organized as they happened not as they happened to be posted.
Although it’s way too early to say whether Timeline will be a success or even whether Facebook will maintain it over the years, it is a dramatic shift in our social media profiles. For one thing, by viewing our online lives in a linear fashion people will be able to develop more accurate views of who we are. For example, if over a ten year span a person’s Timeline reveals that every year an individual purchased the latest iDevice from Apple, we can assume with some assurance a level of fanboy devotion and that the pattern will continue. Even more interesting might be the nuanced interpretations of our lives over longer periods of time as our ideas evolve about music, technology, politics, and even our favorite foods. (Who knew that Brussels sprouts tasted so good?)
On balance, I think this is a good change. Assuming Facebook continues to give its members full control over who sees what about their social lives, Timeline brings a comprehensible order to the flow of information we post about ourselves without our having to think about the process. It gives our lives structure, direction, and, to a certain extent, meaning, in the sense that others can see the steps we took to achieve particular goals.
I don’t know many people who feel grandiose enough to take the time to write their own autobiographies. But I know many people whose lives are interesting enough that I’d like to read more about how they got to where they are today. Given enough time, Timeline may be the way in which we can all learn in a more comprehensible way how truly interesting some of us are.