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Oscar Williams-Grut

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Zuckerberg's Monster: Facebook's Timeline Takes The 'Social' Out Of Social Networking

Posted: 22/12/11 00:30

I've got the new Facebook Timeline. And I don't like it.

Big deal, you might think. After all, every time Facebook make even the slightest change users rush to condemn it. A friend was quick to label me a "Facebook dinosaur" after I expressed my dislike.

But my objection goes beyond the shock of the new. The way Timeline uses personal data is unsettlingly noticeable. It's the latest example of Facebook shifting focus away from enabling social networking towards profiling users.

For those unfamiliar with Timeline, it more or less does what it says on the tin. A timeline runs through the centre of your profile displaying your Facebook 'top stories' as points on the line. A side bar lets you scroll through past years, presenting Facebook 'Highlights' from each year. You can even access an "Activity Log" that records everything you've ever done on the site.

The easy access of embarrassing photos and statuses from five years ago is bad enough - "Oscar Williams-Grut is wearing tights" is just one example (don't ask). But it gets worse.

Your timeline begins with your "birth". Facebook shows where and when you were born based on your date of birth and hometown. A new 'Map' feature combines locations of photos you've been tagged in, places you've checked in at and updates sent from GPS devices to create a 'map' of your life. Friends can see how many times you've checked in at certain places, with more frequent check-ins showing up as bigger dots on the map.

Concerns about the amount of information shared on Facebook are no new thing, but Timeline will only worsen fears. By combining information and making it easily browsable, Facebook makes the job of any would-be stalker or identity thief that much easier should the site's privacy settings fail. Users are even invited to fill in information about their 'pre-Facebook' life. Given the site's record of gaffes, I won't be rushing to fill it in.

Beyond the safety of information, there's just something quite offensive about Timeline's intrusiveness. It takes seemingly discrete pieces of information and combines them to create a composite picture of who it thinks you are. When Mark Zuckerberg first introduced Timeline earlier this year he called it "the story of your life." But it reads more like Frankenstein. Timeline fuses together parts of a whole but creates only a flawed imitation.

The result is that profiles begin to look more like CIA Factbooks than homepages. Given the rumours of supposed links between Facebook and the CIA perhaps it's to be expected; Zuckerberg and his pals are just making it easier for their partners to keep tabs on us trouble-making proles.

As appealing as conspiracy theories are, the motives behind the changes are more likely financial. Whether a fact book or "the story of your life", Timeline is beneficial not to users but to advertisers.

By turning Facebook into an online recreation of people's lives, the site encourages people to share more and more information about themselves. Zuckerberg has even coined his own 'Law', which predicts the amount of information users' share online will double every year.

This trend to 'over share' has no benefit to the user. The more listening and reading habits, life events and pictures are automatically shared, the more socialising becomes a passive, unfulfilling activity. Looking back on Timeline, one of the most striking things is just how much more interaction there was in previous years. Social networking was, well, 'social'.

Timeline and new features like auto-sharing may make it easier to keep up with friends, but they take a lot of the fun out of friendships. They encourage people to focus on themselves, vetting their posts, preening their pages and enabling their apps. If they want to catch up with a friend they need only visit their page rather than actually talk to them.

While over sharing isn't much fun for the user, it's great for Facebook. The more information the site has at its disposal, the easier it is to tailor adverts to individuals and reap significant financial rewards in the process. On Tuesday night Facebook announced plans to integrate 'sponsored stories' from advertisers into news feeds. Advertisers will pay to promote stories from your friends that relate to their products.

The transformation of Facebook from just a social networking tool to a highly personalised online profile has been a longterm shift, and its gradual nature means over-sharing has become more and more accepted without much analysis of just what it means for the user.

Despite Zuckerberg's idealistic rhetoric of self-expression and internet freedom, over-sharing ultimately means big-bucks for Facebook rather than big-benefits for users. We should consider how our information will be used and just what we want out of Facebook before we embrace Timeline and over-sharing.

 

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