Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Analysis: Facebook Applies the Dimension of Time to the Social Web

One way to consider Facebook’s newest features is with the dimension of time. 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.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg alluded to this conceptualization in his presentation Thursday, saying that Facebook originated with static profiles and then later moved to things users have done recently — but until now left out everything else.

If you think about it, Facebook today is mostly about things that happened within the span of the last few minutes (like a status message about something a user just did) to the last seven days (say, uploading a photo album after vacation). Facebook has almost completely ignored the now and the past.

That’s about to change, once the new f8 features start rolling out. (As usual, Facebook came down to the wire with its latest release, and many of the announced products aren’t actually ready yet.)

I tend to be kind of a nostalgic person, so I’ve been paying special attention for a while now to services that help activate the social Web past. Some examples of start-ups in this area include Memolane and Erly.

But Facebook is able to take what these companies are already doing to another level. It has the reach — now 800 million active users — combined with those users’ Facebook histories, and now the profuse tiny bits of actions they’ll presumably start sharing with Facebook’s new tools.

Plus, social networks haven’t focused on the past, or haven’t succeeded if they tried, because managing your personal history takes work. Think of the painstaking labors of scrapbookers! But the new Facebook Timelines lay out a pretty interface automatically. Timelines are the most design-y thing we’ve ever seen from Facebook — far from its normal sterlized, utilitarian look and feel.

OK, so that’s what Facebook is doing about the past. Bringing social networking into real time, meanwhile, should enable a rush of sharing, as I focused on for my f8 preview analysis. And that, in turn, should help people serendipitously discover content and feel more connected to each other. But prioritizing quickness also makes sharing more indiscriminate and less meaningful.

The problems with these two added dimensions? Change is hard — both for users to adjust to and for Facebook to execute well. For many users, seeing their entire music listening history or all the places they’ve visited laid out on a chart may feel invasive, because that’s not the way they originally shared the information. I also think many people aren’t terrifically nostalgic, and won’t necessarily want to return to maintain and linger over their Timelines.

Put another way: The reason those 800 million people use Facebook today has nothing to do with all this new stuff. So it will take some time to adjust.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik