February 13, 2012

Why Timeline is a colossal blunder for Facebook


JD LasicaIn September when Facebook introduced Timeline, its new profile interface designed to “tell your life story,” many of us scratched our heads and wondered whether this would turn out to be a serious misstep — a blunder significant enough to knock Facebook from its throne of power.

While the long-term consequences remain to be seen, the short-term verdict is in, and Facebook’s members give Timeline a decided thumbs down.

A full 70 percent of people polled by opinion site SodaHead said they want to see the new feature bite the dust. Only 20 percent of respondents said they like the Timeline.

Timeline switches the overall metaphor from one of sharing to Facebook as historical record keeper.

There’s also an age gap: 30 percent of those 18 to 24 years old said they like Timeline, while only 10 percent of folks over 65 approve. While SodaHead did not conduct a scientific poll (1,327 SodaHead users weighed in), similar negative findings have turned up in online surveys by CNET, by Sophos, where only 8 percent of 4,000 Facebook users said they liked Timeline, and by Mashable, where 79% of more than 1,500 voters said they wanted Facebook Timeline to be optional.

It appears that’s not going to happen. Reports are circulating that Facebook plans to make Timeline mandatory for all members — probably in the next two weeks.

Why Timeline is a mistake: It’s the metaphor

While it’s admirable and important that a company with 850 million users continues to innovate, it strikes me that this is a major overhaul that’s being imposed from the top down. (Didn’t Mark Zuckerberg come up with the idea himself?) See Zuckerberg announcing it at the f8 developers conference in September in this YouTube video — and see the reaction from users in the comments.

Facebook’s profile: old (top) and new.

Here’s where I come down: Timeline is changing our experience on Facebook in profound ways, both positive and negative. Facebook’s former UI and content flow were no great shakes, but Timeline As Dominant Interface on Facebook is a step in the wrong direction, for one single reason: The metaphor is all wrong. Let me explain.

In a revealing interview with Jolie ODell in VentureBeat, Facebook product chief Sam Lessin brought up the fictional Mad Men character Don Draper’s pitch for the Carousel slide projector, a presentation that emphasized memory and emotion. Lessin said Timeline was about tapping into reminiscence, memory and nostalgia.

Which is true. And it’s exactly what we don’t want Facebook to be.

Facebook, from its beginnings, has been all about sharing what’s happening now, a place for stream-of-consciousness revelations, angst, joy, inner turmoil made manifest and shared, more often than not, with the world. Many or most of us left our privacy settings on the default Let It All Hang Out. It can barely be overstated how influential Facebook has been in pushing the culture into more openness and in making sharing the dominant theme of our online interactions. But shareable objects have a lifespan. Ever try sharing a year-old article or photo on Twitter or Google Plus?

Timeline switches the overall metaphor from Facebook as sharing hub to Facebook as historical record keeper.

The old Facebook was about the real-time Web. The new Facebook is about the Wayback Machine.

The old Facebook was a snapshot. The new Facebook is a History Channel documentary.

The old Facebook was a trashy potboiler. The new Facebook is Wikipedia for Everyone.

The old Facebook felt like intimacy. The new Facebook feels like radical transparency.

The old Facebook permitted reinvention of our digital lives — our online identities were largely malleable, even if we were deluding ourselves in the end. The new Facebook is less forgiving. It’s about showing off memories, sure, but also past boyfriends and girlfriends, late-night mistakes, bad haircuts, and all the other warts and regrets that are doubtless leading millions of people to ratchet up the privacy settings (see Dave Awl’s observation at the bottom of this article) and to comb through Facebook’s dusky digital recesses, scrambling to sanitize their past.

On top of it all, the new design is just a mess. “We had a thousand iterations for this,” Lessin said — and this is the best they could come up with for Facebook’s largest makeover ever? It gives people one more reason only to call up the news feed rather than go check out a person’s profile page. While a prominent image at the top is a great improvement over the old look, the rest of the two-column UI is a headache-inducing jumble. The news feed and scroll of status updates pulls us back to the metaphor of the real-time Web. But with Timeline, the metaphor is now decidedly mixed.

Timeline apps could change the equation again

Now, having said all this, I understand why Facebook, as it has countless times before, is forcing the new look on its members: It wants a uniform user experience. Facebook has driven legions of its members to frothy madness over the years by forcing them to adopt the site’s new UI. It makes sense: You want users to have a consistent experience.

But Timeline may prove to be the “upgrade” that millions of members will come to reject. And by reject I don’t mean they’ll quit using Facebook overnight. The real numbers to watch are not Facebook’s overall growth rate, which has slowed considerably, but the time spent on the site. A startling 70 percent of Americans log into Facebook every day (or at least click a Like button somewhere). If that number starts to slide, along with the number of minutes spent on the site, I believe Timeline will be at the root of the decline.

Certainly every Facebook member’s experience is different. For me, I used to log into Facebook for two reasons: to check my news feed, and to check whether I’ve been tagged in a photo that showed up prominently on my home page. That second reason is now gone, and I’ve swapped out my main Timeline image only twice in the past month.

Now, it could be that we’re at a transition stage where a new generation of Timeline apps will completely revolutionize the Timeline experience. Already we’re seeing Timeline apps like Spotify, Pinterest and Living Social make sharing even more frictionless. John Haydon just wrote about using the RunKeeper app to chronicle his workouts.

These are welcome developments. But none of these new apps are dependent on Timeline being the dominant metaphor for the new Facebook. Perhaps there’s a financial reason for Facebook implementing Timeline, but it’s hard to see a revenue generator here that couldn’t be had in other ways.

Only time will tell whether Facebook’s adoption of Timeline will be a mistake on the order of Beacon (without the PR backlash). But this could prove to be one rollout that Facebook comes to regret.

It’s too bad. Facebook’s heart is in the right place, and we should be applauding them for helping us tell our stories and giving friends an easier way to access posts that fall away too quickly. But Timeline seems to be less an enabler of storytelling than an unwelcome guest setting up for a long stay in our digital living rooms.

What’s your opinion of the Timeline? Please add your thoughts in the comments.

Others’ views

• My friend, social business strategist Liz Strauss, emailed to say:

Timeline didn’t work for me that Facebook said I’d have time to check it out. I took that to mean I might try try it and switch back if it didn’t fit. I wasn’t happy when I found I was stuck. I still don’t ‘get’ the logic of the new layout. I’d say I like the ability to check past dates, but I went looking for something for a report last week and the the first two weeks of November weren’t accessible. Do tell me again what I’m supposed to like?

Dave Awl, author of “Facebook Me!,” emailed this:

I have mixed feelings about the current implementation of Timeline. In a nutshell, I’m thumbs-up on archive access and Life Events, but thumbs down on the alternating-column layout for postings and the Cover Photo.

I’ll start with the positive: I think Facebook has always needed a way that people can navigate easily through their own archives. Especially as the years go by, and people accumulate more history on Facebook, it’s important to have a way to quickly and conveniently refer back to past postings without having to scroll endlessly through months of content. So I’m really glad that Timeline has given us an easy way to jump back to, say, August of 2009 and revisit old conversations or access information that had been previously posted.

I think the ability to designate postings as Life Events, and fill in past Life Events on our Timelines, is a useful feature, too.

On the downside, I think the current profile layout for Timeline, with the stream of postings weaving back and forth between the two columns, is messy, visually disorienting, and confusing to many people. I wish they’d restore it to one wide column in simple reverse chronological order.

I also wish that access to the About area (aka the old Info tab) were more prominent in the current design.

I’m not a big fan of the Cover Photo. I liked it at first, but ultimately it’s made me realize how much I had grown to appreciate the Photo Strip — I miss the way the Photo Strip allowed people to see multiple facets of a Facebooker’s personality at a glance. Because of the odd (wide but very shallow) dimensions of the Cover Photo, most people wind up just slapping up a landscape, skyline, or family photo that doesn’t really say all that much about them, which then hogs a lot of wasted space at the top of the profile, pushing most of the actual postings down below the fold.

Finally, for people concerned about Timeline cleanup, it’s worth noting that Facebook has given us a very useful setting in the privacy controls that lets you restrict all of your old postings so that only friends can see them, with one click — even if some of those postings were originally set as Public or Friends of Friends.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!


How Facebook has quietly created a gold mine for marketers (Socialmedia.biz)

What Facebook Timeline apps are really all about (Socialbrite)

Articles and tutorials on Facebook (Socialbrite)JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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27 thoughts on “Why Timeline is a colossal blunder for Facebook

  1. I think the Timeline concept is a good idea, but you are right to point out that it changes Facebook's focus from “right now” to “back then”. The Timeline should be a tool within your Facebook page, not the main part of it. Given the immediacy of Twitter, and the complete lack of memory of new social sites like Pinterest, Facebook is going out on a limb here. Problem is, there isn't viable alternative for most people, so we are stuck with it. Interesting that FB got it out of the way before the IPO! Must have something major to do with future revenues, or they were so worried about a backlash that they got it out of the way!

    • Alex, couldn't agree more. This should be a tool, not the dominant part of a new interface imposed on all users. I think Facebook will backtrack on that by the end of 2012.

  2. Unattractive and pointless. I'm not interested in your past and if I wnat you to know mine, I'll write my autobiography. Visually, it doesn't work for me – having the page split straight down the middle makes for poor composition and an untidy look. What it really means is, I've been deleting lots of old posts, and spending much more time on twitter. I can't really see the point of timeline; I only use facebook to keep in touch with friends. I'm interested in what they have to sasy now, not what they had to say in the past.

    • Alan, I haven't gone through the assortment of privacy controls to keep one's past private on Facebook (there's supposed to be a push-button solution), but users are raising this point a lot, which doesn't seem to play well with Facebook's notion of status updates as autobiography. We want a bit more control over our digital histories.

  3. Dave Awl Nailed it. Conceptually timeline is great but the execution could be better. For example give me a simple way to click a photo in Timeline and see the entire album in which it was put originally. The two column layout is harder to resolve for the very reason that Mr. Awl criticizes the cover photo. The dimensions are bad for posting photos. My guess is that Facebook can deal with format issues going forward and the real question is the chronological layout and searchability inherent in Timeline. My sense is that Dave likes those core elements of Timeline; and so do I.

    • Oh, I think a lot of amateur blogs are alive and well, but I do worry that the concern about permanence is a bug and not a feature, as Facebook would have it.

  4. Timeline hasn't changed FB for me in the least. Maybe that is more of a reflection on how I use the site though than on the changes. I check FB regularly, but very seldom visit others' or my own profile page.

    • Most users (me included) use the news feed, almost exclusively. I'm mourning the loss of the serendipity of Facebook, the real-time quirkiness of FB posts by folks worried about their status updates becoming permanent personal records. Though I hope I'm wrong about that.

  5. Interestingly, this article doesn't even hint about what so many of us are concerned about, and that's the danger in having everything a cointelpro-type project might want about us, and I mean Everything!

    People who went through the McCarthy years, and the COINTELPRO years (goodness – just that over-65 yrs, 90% of whom don't approve!) understand how this information can and certainly will be used. Political activists, particularly, are seriously at risk with this new app. If you check out a couple of books (or maybe even articles) about those times you'll see how truth and justice had very little to do with who was targeted or who went to prison.

    Yes, most stuff is available scattered all around a zillion sites, but the time it takes to gather everything about one person's life would take more than one person full time for days. and no agency has that kind of time. Now, all they'll have to do is Patriot-act Facebook, and voila – they know everything you've ever done that has been posted to Facebook by anyone at all, what you like, where you go and have been, what your plans are, who your family is, etc.

    This one must be stopped! I, for one, will end my relationship with Facebook when Timeline is no longer optional.

  6. '10 percent of folks over 65 approve?' Who did you guys actually poll? This kind of reporting only blocks development and evolution. The Digital Age is not a womb, it's Darwinian. Either adapt or get left behind. If you can't roll with a simple evolution in Facebook's interface– which has been developed with purpose by higher minds than all of ours put together– it's probably time to dust off your Atari and settle back in with the ease & comfort of Pong. I mean, why change if it 'aint broken, right?

    • As the article makes clear, I've never complained about the zillion Facebook design changes that came before. But the numbers are the numbers — people aren't happy about this latest iteration — and I think they have a point. The question is, will Facebook listen to its members?

      • If you took this same poll with every change Facebook made to its UI, you'd get similar results. Every time they changed the UI, my news feed was littered with posts about how they hate it, how Facebook should listen to its users, how they're thinking of leaving, etc. They never do. Timeline will be yet another thing we get used to, and a year from now we'll be bitching about the next change and demanding Facebook change it back to the Timeline we love so much. It's the circle of life on the Internet.

    • I've been online one way or another for almost 40 years. I was a charter member of The WELL. I was a USENET group creator and moderator. I ran forums and political campaigns on the Web. I've developed for the Web. Okay, so now that my credentials are established: I think Timeline sucks. As one of FB's relatively early users, I was impressed by the tabula rasa we apparently enjoyed, on which we could play endlessly. Little by little that's been eroded by dictates from secretive “designers” with their own ideas of what works best. Their criteria has usually been what works best to willy-nilly grow and audience and then what works best to sell to it and sell the audience to others. My use of FB has diminished rapidly in the last two years and with Timeline is about to go off the cliff.

      Like JD, I value spontaneity. The Web is jammed full of more-of-the-same-with-better-hype. FB's virtue was its relative visual orderliness combined with a let-it-go content. Now the orderliness is no longer a means, it's the end. As I wrote earlier, as I grow older, with it comes a childlike value for being in the moment. I value more what I do now than what I did back when. No one asked me when FB foisted its backward-looking interface on me. That perhaps is the biggest error here. Arrogance. Monopoly. A royal attitude toward the “masses.” See where that gets you….

      • Bob, beautifully put. Love this comment especially: “Now the orderliness is no longer a means, it's the end.” As Facebook turns its attention to profits, rather than to its users, we'll be seeing more and more of this attempt to structure the data instead of fostering spontaneity.

  7. I see a lot of hate for the new timeline feature, but as with every new addition but don't like the change and then eventually they get used to it and couldn't live without it.

    I quite like the timeline as it adds a bit more too each page, you can make i more unique and manage what is shown better.

    Simon Duck

  8. Exactly! Facebook is becoming the one thing we all users dreaded: a nostalgic trip down the memory lane. Quite frankly its useless. Facebook from the very beginning was all about sharing anything new not some keeper of the old archive.

  9. JD – think you did a great job pointing out the pros and cons of Timeline. From a design perspective, it’s utterly non-intuitive. My good betting sense believes that If there weren’t 850m+ users of Facebook, this would’ve been the UI-that-killed-Facebook. Really, we are such a savvy group of web users nowadays, and we don’t easily put up with the confusing layout, confusion of how to use Timeline apps, and (in your excellent words) labyrinthine privacy settings!

    On the plus side, I do like the cover photo- it’s what’s most important to users at a glance. It’s not the avatar, but the other side of us – the rest of our lives. This is the best of Timeline. Timeline apps have huge potential for users, but their awkward integration (it’s hard to even get back to the Washington Post Social Reader, for example, and I’ve downloaded it!) also hinders some app adoption.

    Lastly, Facebook’s lack of care or concern for what users actually want comes through here, as with every UI change.

    Will I stop using Facebook? No, not yet. Everyone’s there. Will I be so happy when the next big social network finally coalesces and competely truly with FB? Mostly likely, yes. Facebook’s gotta work on its loyalty issues, because they may very well harm Mr. Zuckerberg sometime soon.

  10. I am using Timeline now but it is not good. Earlier when I used Facebook it was easy to use and to see the posts. After taking Timeline I am comfused. I like earlier version.

  11. It's crazy to see how many people don't like the timeline! There's been quite a few Facebook updates in the past and people don't agree with it at first, but than get used to it. However, this timeline issue doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.

  12. JD, I am usually tracking with you, but I have to say this time I disagree. Here let me explain another side…

    1) Everybody hates changes and especially Facebook changes. We get into grooves and we don't embrace change. I have hated just about every Facebook change–initially, but after a few weeks when I get use to where things moved too, I get over it and am usually pleased with the big picture.

    2) “A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs. Innovation rarely occurs by popular polling.

    3) There will be some unbelievable apps that come from historical data. There is a bigger picture here which initially is not obvious and certainly frightening to those who worry about privacy. Facebook has been tracking and logging our activities, posts, check-ins, and updates. We all knew this but without Timeline, we didn't REALLY see it in plain English. They are tipping the scale by encouraging people to go historical on pre-Facebook events. Watch what happens in the next 90 to 180 days. You are about to see some of the coolest connecting, datamining and business uses since grocer started tracking our purchases. Like a new OS, I am not sure everyone gets the gravity of what just changed.

    Everybody views and uses Facebook differently. I am not sure that Timeline will be Facebook's demise. I think we'll end the year seeing Facebook hitting a billion users and have a different reflection on Timeline once some time passes on the line.

    Fred Campos @FunCityChief

    • Excellent points, Fred. I agree, folks don't realize the import of what's changing here.

      I also agree it's motivated by revenue demands. Perhaps Facebook can monetize users' personal histories in a way that has eluded up to now.

      The question is, will that be in users' interests, or just Facebook's?

      • JD,

        financial, no question. Users' interest? Maybe. My wife thinks it's pretty cool to receive diaper coupons in the mail but I am not sure she realizes that occurs based on the grocer tracking her scanned purchases at the grocery store. Will she think it is equally as beneficial the day she sees a Huggies coupon ad permanently fixed on her Facebook timeline beside our youngest son's birth?

        I am really not sure.

        But when she see the email that on behalf of Facebook, Parenting Magazine wants to sponsor her profile picture for $2 in Starbucks credit per month, she just might let the Huggies ad slide.

        Fred Campos @FunCityChief

  13. Until there's an automated way to import data into timeline from the old profile, it's a huge time sink and way too hard to update.

  14. _I think Facebook is fine as it is. If timeline is made mandatory I will quit altogether. Why the big change?