Random scribblings on software, technology, language, and society.

Category Archives: facebook

My 2 cents on facebook’s timeline

Just recently facebook announced the release of a replacement for the “Wall” by something way more advanced called the “Timeline“. Personally, I’m using facebook on quite a superficial level and wouldn’t care so much. But as a friend is currently doing an internship at fb, I put a little more thought on the matter and actually watched through Mark Zuckerbergs keynote presentation at F8.
So.. the idea is basically that a user’s profile page shows a timeline from their birth up to the present, with all important key events of one’s life neatly lined out for your friends to browse. Web developers praise the technical execution, mothers will go “Aww” at all the baby photos, and the average user just enjoys another exiting web-toy to play around with. Everyone’s happy, right?
Well I, for one, would like to caution everyone to a healthy amount of skepticism towards these changes!

The media’s reception has been somewhat critical [1][2], and arguments have been made mostly about security and privacy concerns. I try not to be too nitpicky here, but note that the media loves to mess up all these terms, blur the line between very distinct problems, and add in meaningless 1984 references where they are entirely inappropriate. Concerns about ‘who shares how much information with who’, are certainly reasonable, but as they have been preexisting, I will gladly skip them here. Instead I want to mention a point, that hasn’t been brought up very often and might sound a little far fetched at first: Obsolescing real life interactions with software.

The issue I see with timeline is that it will compete with real-life interactions. Worse, it will often be the better option.
Zuckerberg explained how your profile page would be the “opening 5 minutes” of a conversation: your work, where you went to school, your relationship status. The wall would be the next 15 minutes of a conversation: what you have been doing recently in your life. In that analogy, timeline relates to “all the rest”.. which I consider kind of scary: facebook tries to capture the entirety of every conversation you will ever have with everyone. The proposed gain here is that newly made friends can see a “summary of you”. Facebook wants to be all about presenting yourself to the outside world. You will see one interesting detail by extrapolating the trend between profile, wall, and timeline: the requirement of “completeness”. Facebook wants to eliminate the gaps. If its an aspect of your life, it should be part of your interactions on facebook.
And my point is: The scary part is not visibility concerns; its the fact that it could actually work. Since we have computers, we boost our efficiency with software. Now we simply reached the point where we also optimize social interactions.
Reading someone’s timeline on facebook could be way more efficient than an actual conversation. And our need for time-cost-optimization will make this a useful tool. Without wasting too much thought on whether this is inevitable or not, we could at least ask ourselves if this is something we want.
Isn’t the charm of meeting new people that they aren’t open books? In the offline world, you get to know people over the course of many conversations, and through time and setting gradually discover new aspects of their personality. Worse, we tell the same stories of our life over and over, because in the offline world we are restricted to conversions between small groups of people. What if this terribly inefficient process will gradually shift to online interactions?
The hypocrisy is that facebook wants to be all about improving human connections – and yet relationships become more dehumanized. When I check in a movie on imdb, and after layers of layers of statistical filtering, a friend sees this in his newsfeed, facebook regards itself as the saint of spreading culture and friendship. Yet, both of us interacted with an application. I might be old-fashioned but I don’t see this in any way equivalent to telling a friend of a good movie I saw.
Mind you, I’m not your mom, telling you to sit less in front of your screen and go out see the sun. Such a conservative point of view – wanting to restrict social interactions to real-life – is too naive in the internet age. The way we communicate has changed, and will continue to do so in the years to come. What I want to defy is the cruel rationalization and centralization of social interactions and friendships.

So am I advocating for retreating from facebook? Not exactly.
Firstly, I’m not rating the product here; other platforms deal with just the same controversies, and denying their existence is not going to solve anything.
These issues here are sociological paradigm shifts, and I feel that most people just aren’t aware of their relevance. History books of the future will certainly talk about this, and we are right in the midst of it. What scares me is the way people tend to sheepishly follow any direction the big companies impose. The message of this, if there is any, is simply that users of social networks should be more conscious about the changes that are happening to human communication – and that not all of them are for the better.