In case you have been away from the Internet for the last two months: Facebook Timeline is about to blow your mind. What's that, you ask? Well, Timeline is Facebook's new user interface (rolling out sometime soon to all users, if a lawsuit situation gets ironed out) which will replace your Wall and attempt to put everything you do -- every aspect of your life, from the day you were born to right this second -- on Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg says this will allow you to "highlight and curate all your stories so you can express who you really are."
So. What does this mean for you? First, Facebook Timeline is way more than just a new look, though it's definitely a new look, too. It's a whole new idea of what Facebook is. At the moment, unless you have used the Timeline developer hack, your Wall and all the Walls you ever see are laid out in the old way: a little picture of you in the corner, your name and basic info at the top.
This is what Zuckerberg calls "the next fifteen minutes of a conversation" (in his analogy, this conversation started five minutes ago with the first profile -- I guess it takes five minutes to tell someone your name and if you're single). What he means is this: the Wall is okay for stalking someone and figuring out what they've been up to generally and in the recent past, but what if you are planning to marry them and you can't afford a private investigator? What if you really want to know what they were doing and who they were doing it with in 2005 without having to click "More Stories" a hundred times? What if you have a potentially fatal case of Not-Enough-Information-About-People-I-Went-To-High-School-With-Available-on-the-Internet-itis? This is what Timeline is for. Or as Zuckerberg says, while continuing his conversation analogy, this is "the rest" (except for the blood test, which I imagine we'll see in the next product roll-out).
Up until Timeline, Facebook has been just the middle part of a story, the part that is happening now. There's no story arc, no beginning and end. It's how you feel about a football game or an article's headline, in this specific moment. But Timeline hopes to give your insignificant day-to-day thoughts and meals and song choices and iPhone pictures context and meaning by organizing and aggregating them. You will be able to see graphs of your meals and snapshots of all your activity from a month or a year ago. Your Timeline will start with the day you were born and end, I guess, a few weeks after you die, when someone posts the last condolence message, uploads a picture of your tombstone and everyone sort of moves on.
In this way, Facebook Timeline will try to make us all important and all immortal.
Another crucial aspect of Timeline is the "social apps," which will change how your activity appears on your Timelines and your friends' News Feeds and will allow these hypothetical food graphs to exist. Currently, Pre-Timeline (I'm calling the beginning of history until the moment Timeline rolls out "Pre-Timeline"), with most apps, you individually approve everything that could be posted to your wall. For example, Pre-Timeline, if you play the Fantasy Bachelorette game on Facebook, not everyone has to know. When the screen pops up that says something like, "Challenge your friends to pick Ashley's true love!" you always, always click "Skip."
Delete the Fantasy Bachelorette app now. In the very near future, you won't have a choice about what it posts about you.
The goal of social apps is to make everything you do online "seamless" (Zuckerberg's 1984-esque word) which really seems to mean "available to corporations to use as advertising to your friends." When these apps become available, you will sign on to use almost any online product (you can bet they will ALL have apps as soon as they can be developed) and all of your activity, not just what you "like," but what you read, view, buy, etc., will appear on Facebook. We witnessed an early experiment in this type of full exposure when Spotify -- a legal online music sharing site you can't use without a Facebook account -- shared every song you listened to, directly on your Facebook wall. When users complained, Spotify announced private listening, which allows you to choose which songs you share. But, if you don't find this privacy control, when you are dead and your great-great-grandchildren use the chip in their brains to log on to Facebook Mind, they can laugh at the quaint music their ancestors listened to on those funny, bulky computing machines.
So, yes, there are privacy controls and yes, I am sure someone will figure out how to use them. However, even with those controls, all of this information will still be collected and used somehow. Clearly, it is already being used. How else did a "free service" get to be worth so much money? (According to the Wall Street Journal, "Some people believe that if Facebook goes public next year, it will trade at a $100 billion valuation...")
Should you worry? Probably. But we don't have to get into that now. Now you are going to want to hack your way into Facebook Timeline and lose the next two hours of your life answering the questions, "Did I really leave the house dressed like that in 2008?" and "Which Ryan Adams album will make me most attractive to the cute boy from the radio station in college?" It's time to express who you really are. The future is here now. You might as well get used to it.