The Good, The Bad and The Ugly About Facebook’s Timeline and Social Networking

In the late 1990s, I was a regular on an internet chat room run by the Tom Leykis Show. (Remember when chat rooms were all the rage?) One of the most common conversations went like this:

Person 1: You seem cool. What do you look like?

Person 2: Why don’t I just send you my photo? What’s your email address?

This happened all the time. And it tended to happen to the same people. So I told everyone to send me their picture and I would put up a website with all the photos of the regular chat people. Now, when someone new came on, we could just send them to the site where they would find that they too can be on the site if they send me their picture.

This was my first encounter with social networking.  At the time, the only thing you had to choose was whether or not you wanted to share a photo and if so, which one. That site no longer exists now. Neither do the chats. I’m not even still in contact with any of the people I met on the Tom Leykis Show chat room in person or online. It was something that happened and then it was gone, like most things in life.

Then there was MySpace. It was nice and simple. Post your picture, write what’s going on. Exchange messages. The choices were fairly simple. Share your name, age, hometown and whatever was on your mind. You could post what you were thinking. You could blog. You could comment on what other people were thinking or blogging. MySpace was an interconnected blogging site for people who didn’t want to code.

In 2007, everything changed with Facebook. Initially it seemed like a MySpace clone. Then Facebook began evolving. And it never stopped evolving. MySpace quickly became something that kids were into. Facebook became the place to be online.  Suddenly you were in contact with people you knew in high school. Suddenly some ex who you forgot about is sending you a friend request. Suddenly your mom is your friend on Facebook. This year, Facebook passed half a billion users. More people you know have a Facebook page than don’t.

With something that popular, there were inevitably going to be others who wanted a piece of that pie. Twitter carved out a niche by being incredible simple and easy to use. Before everyone had smart phones, you could send a text to 40404 and tell the world what was going on. It also became the place to connect with celebrities. LinkedIn showed up saying they were the Facebook for work. And like work, they were boring, but still kind of useful. Google came out with Buzz, which faded. Then they came out with Google+. G+ would have been a contender three or four years ago back when people were getting tired of MySpace and trying out Facebook. But it’s too late now. I know some people with G+ accounts but every one of them has a Facebook account that gets updated more often.

As soon as G+ came out, people began wondering how Facebook would respond. Initially it seemed like they weren’t going to do anything major. Then they came out with Timeline.

I’ll get into the whole Timeline thing in a minute, but first I want to back up and explain something. It doesn’t really matter how cool or flashy your website is. It doesn’t matter who is involved or what company it represents. What matters first, before all of that, is content. Content is king. Your site can be easy to navigate, pleasant to look at and on the cutting edge of what any browser can display. It won’t matter if you don’t have quality content.

Most companies pay people like me to write informative and entertaining content for their websites and social networking pages. What makes a company like Facebook so ingenious is that they don’t provide the content. They let their users provide the content. It has been said that “If it is free, then you are not the customer, you are the product.” Facebook has a billion eyes looking at Facebook.  And you and I are providing the content. This is what makes Facebook so powerful.

Facebook doesn’t just encourage us to post our thoughts, pictures, links and whatever else onto our pages. By linking us with our friends, it lets us share these things with the people we care about. And the people we care about love that. Facebook makes sharing our private stuff fun. That’s the magic of it. It gives us connection even when that connection might actually only exist in our heads. I mean it’s not as if every one of our friends looks at every one of our posts, but we still imagine that they do.

Timeline is everything that Facebook was and more. We’re no longer contained by the fact that Facebook didn’t exist before 2007. We can now post pictures, thoughts, ‘life events’ and everything else at any point in our lives beginning with the day we were born. If you really wanted to, you could use Timeline to tell your entire life story in a way that no journal has ever really been able to capture and share it on a global scale.

The potential here is extraordinary. It used to be that if you met someone new, you could look that person up on Facebook and find out what they looked like, what their relationship status was, what their interests were and how many Facebook friends they had. Now, with Timeline, it’d be possible to learn everything you might learn on a date just by going to their Facebook page. Facebook encourages you to post where you worked, who you were married to, how long you were married and what day you had a kid. In fact, Timeline has made it remarkably easy to fill in your entire life with words and pictures. Your autobiography could be a click away.

Remember what I said about content being king? This is the Holy Grail of content. Sure, you might not decide to share everything with Facebook, but the more you share, the more you feel connected. The less you share, the more people will think you’re hiding things. The one bright side of this is that at least it is letting you write your own autobiography. It’s not cross checking this with employment statistics and public records.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Timeline. I think the one thing that people might not be noticing is the fact that Facebook essentially owns everything you post there. For most people this doesn’t mean much. There’s not a lot of call for autobiographies of random people. However, let’s say you’re not random. Let’s say that you become someone who is in the public spotlight. Let’s say you become massively famous. And then let’s say that spotlight of fame burns you and you flame out like Charlie Sheen. And you do it publicly. On Facebook. What is to stop Facebook from taking your entire profile, publishing it and not giving you a dime?

Okay, that’s a worst case scenario. It’s unlikely to happen because you’re probably not going to be famous and Facebook would encounter a mass exodus if they started publishing ‘Facebook Biographies’ without the consent of the main characters. A more likely possibility is that with publishing becoming cheaper and cheaper, you decide to publish your own autobiography and you decide to use a bunch of your Facebook posts. For whatever reason, your autobiography takes off and is a best seller. Facebook could potentially sue for their share of your riches despite the fact that you wrote every word. Again, it’s probably not going to happen, but it could.

The most likely scenario in a world where you decided to share your entire life on Facebook goes something like this. You spend years creating your Facebook page with daily posts of random things that interest you. You comment on things. You share pictures. You share your life online. From time to time you might add things that happened before you joined Facebook into your Timeline. You create a snapshot of what your life was like day by day. And then you die. Two hundred years pass. And somewhere in the Internet archives, your Facebook page exists. More permanent than any hardcopy book that can be lost or destroyed. More accessible than an old relative that knows your family history. Your Facebook page becomes the Testament of You.

Strangely in this last scenario, Facebook owning the content actually helps you. Because jackcameron.com only exists as long as I or someone else pays for it. I’m betting my great grandkids won’t give a shit about keeping Great Grandpa Jack’s website up. But I don’t have to worry about my Facebook. It’s owned by a multibillion dollar corporation that isn’t likely to go away anytime soon and even if it does, it’ll likely just be sold to another company that will keep it going. Sure, there’s the possibility that Facebook will one day charge, but it’s unlikely. There’s no reason to. We aren’t the customer. We’re the product. And I’m okay with that.

- Jack Cameron

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