The latest update to Facebook, the Timeline, has been running in test for about a week now. I've been using it myself and personally I like the new presentation format, but it is a radical departure from the traditional profile format, where news and events are simply listed in chronological order.
Reviews have been mixed, from those claiming it's an enormous gamble to the fans proclaiming it's the best thing since Netscape. Timeline is about to go live to the entire Facebook community meaning 800m Facebook users are about to find out what the fuss is all about.
The first problem is going to be over the continued march of Facebook towards the complete knowledge of everything you have ever done, seen, or liked. If you put something on your old profile, once it dropped off the bottom of the page that was it. Your friends could not see it any longer and even you would not be able to find your own profile updates from the distant past.
That's all changed. With Timeline you can skip back in time to see what you were doing on this day two years ago, based on what you were pasting onto your Facebook wall at the time. Users are being encouraged to add information about significant life events from before Facebook existed. Born in the 1980s? Make sure your Timeline reflects that. Married in 2000? Make sure you add the photos... for some it will feel like a completion of their profile, for others it feels like snooping.
The funny thing is that I have watched several friends having children over the past few years and immediately creating a Facebook profile for their child when it is born - just by faking the date of birth to get around the minor issue of age restriction. Then photos and video are all uploaded to the profile.
These kids will be the first in history to have a life that is documented so entirely with a rich library of multimedia capturing their first words, steps, and game of cricket. I can barely remember my own first day at school let alone my first birthday.
Think for a moment though. Aren't these parents just doing exactly what Facebook is now offering to all users through the Timeline? It's an opportunity to go back and document your entire life BF; Before Facebook.
The elephant in the room with the introduction of Timeline is this ability to search through past profile updates. Everyone has posted something stupid or in poor taste to their wall before. It used to vanish quickly and was forgotten, now it will live on and be forever searchable.
So there is a need to educate people far more extensively about online etiquette, especially the young who are only just starting to realise that what they post today will live on forever and may affect a job application several years from now.
I recently did some work advising a major global service company on their Twitter strategy, helping the CEO to use all these online tools more effectively to monitor what people are saying about his company. One of the most interesting observations I found during that process was that people who have a job in a company and presumably need that pay-cheque are happy to post tweets saying how much they hate the company, or their boss, or that they are about to quit and their supervisor does not know.
Some of these Twitter users might feel violated if the chief executive of the company sends them a message using the same platform. Not because they have a right to feel that way - they are publishing opinions in their own name in a public forum open to anyone, they just assume that the boss is not looking.
The Facebook Timeline is going to tear away this innocent ignorance and will either be a spectacular failure or will finally ensure that people think not only about what they publish, but also who they make it available to. That drunken night out in 2009 could now have a direct impact on your job prospects in 2019.
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