From Cradle to, Well, You Know: The Creepy Factor of Facebook’s Timeline
One of the quotes I always keep pinned to the side of my computer monitor is by my favorite writer, Joan Didion, from her terrific essay, “On Keeping a Notebook”:
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.
Yesterday, Facebook took Didion’s elegant and poignant concept about memories a little too literally (and, of course, nerdily) with its introduction of Timeline, which the social networking giant is calling “The Story of Your Life.”
Oh dear. (And it hopefully will not include the part about that fantastically dysfunctional break-up in a ratty hotel room by the sea.)
You could look at this new offering from Facebook in a lot of ways, from a new super-sized version of its existing profiles to a digital scrapbook of memories to a geek version of a daily planner.
As Liz Gannes wrote today in a cogent analysis of Timeline:
“On one end, Facebook’s platform update will channel every little thing people do around the Web in real time. Meanwhile, the new timelines in user profiles are an acknowledgment and glorification of the past.”
All true, of course, but to my mind the whole idea of a life on display in pixels like some never-ending comic book — with photos and text and video and smiley faces (and frowns, too!) — is, well, more than a little creepy.
It’s not Facebook’s fault at all, because it is just doing better what it already does, born from its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s central notion that being able to share everything online is the sacred goal.
It’s always been his mantra and the young and decidedly visionary entrepreneur visibly bounced around the stage of Facebook’s f8 developers conference yesterday at the idea of it.
His Timeline had a lot about his longtime girlfriend and his dog, Beast. Has there ever been a more over-sharing canine? I think not!
(Actually, as longtime privacy activist Lori Fena tweeted to me today: “Internet Anthropology: 90’s Internet — Nobody knows you’re a dog. 2011 FB Timeline — Everyone knows you’re a dog.”)
But what struck me the most was a video Zuckerberg showed about Timeline, which depicted the life of a (fictional?) Facebook employee named Andy Sparks, from his birth on August 14, 1974 onward.
Maybe it was just me, but as it proceeded through Andy’s awkward teens to his wedding to his own kids and the years flipped by, I got a sinking feeling that it would not stop until we ended up with a crepe-lined profile page and a digital tombstone.
Here lies Andy — if you have any questions about his entire life, please back-click!
Thankfully, the video stopped at middle-age (Andy would be 37 years old now), but like I said: Creepy!
Then again, it also might be a bad idea to digitize everything in sight in the first place, well beyond such concerns, as Maura Johnston concluded in a smart essay about Timeline:
I think there’s something to be said about the idea of personality development over time that makes me quite uneasy about Facebook’s exuberance over being able to chronicle one’s whole life on the service. What does that do to the notion of memory, the fuzziness of which can have helpful functions at times? … And I feel like so many of the innovations involving technology and persona being put forth right now are being fashioned by people with myopic “everything is great right now and will be that way forever” outlooks, and that they don’t really have any sense of what life beyond their VC-funded Silicon Valley privileged existences might be like.
In other words, who we were may not be, in the end, who we really are.
Or perhaps instead, it is what Didion so eloquently wrote:
“Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”
Well, we’ll see — but, until then, here’s the Timeline video and, below it, Didion’s must-read essay: