The new Facebook: The times of our lives

January 6, 2012

Nobody likes change, but I’d argue I like it least of all. When my mother forced me to replace the carpet in my childhood bedroom that doubled as my sibling’s playroom, after weeks of tantrums, she made a deal: I could chose my favorite stain on the floor and keep that square of carpet. (I opted for the spilled chocolate ice cream from my birthday party.) So I understand all too well the hue and cry from Facebook users every time the behemoth company alters its site.

“Death by a thousand cuts,” I’d mutter after a small tweak removed the “poke” button or added lists or created some other site alteration. I told people that if it weren’t my job to cover social media, I’d ditch Facebook entirely. Too many privacy issues. Too many instances when the company seemed to pander to advertisers rather than users.

But the latest improvement — and its most dramatic — has bowled me a googly. The Facebook Timeline is not just a great product, it’s a savvy business move.

Technology companies — like many businesses — can get trapped by success. As Coca-Cola discovered in the infamous New Coke debacle, customers want a beloved product to stay the same. But with technology improving at mach speed, companies that don’t move as quickly end up in the drawer with MySpace. Many of the most successful tech companies (see Google), combat this issue by delving into new products. Facebook, though, reinvented its product.

Facebook Timeline works on all levels: for advertisers, for users and for Facebook. The Timeline has been slowly rolling out for the 800 million users over the past few weeks. It’s a redesign of the Facebook user page, a section of the site few people likely visit, unless you are stalking your ex. This may change with the Timeline. Like the MySpace predecessor, it gives us a much more personalized presentation of information, with a large photograph at top and then exactly what its name says: a timeline of all your Facebook updates. Users can fill in missing moments from birth until present day. My friends, for instance, have since the release of the Timeline been adding those monumental occasions — weddings, births, jobs, many from pre-Facebook days. Job coaches are recommending that prospective employees use it as the new résumé.


Facebook’s latest change, the Timeline, is a brilliant product for the company.

That’s where the benefit to advertisers comes in: Facebook will have even more personal information to better hone targeted ads.

But unlike past changes to the site, Facebook is also providing a user-oriented product. It turns the basic premise of social media inside out: Rather than having ephemeral, instant conversation snippets that get lost in the Internet vortex, the Timeline creates a scrapbook of your Facebook experience. It compiles much of the work you’ve put into Facebook and offers it to you in a searchable way.

You can zone in on a year or a month to find exactly what you were doing in, say December 2008 (I was crowing over my dad’s karaoke rendition of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”). It may seem like mundane stuff, but when I first got the Timeline, I spent nearly four hours on it, rereading the story of my time on the site and remembering the small moments that I chose to share with my friends. I removed a couple of posts along the way (mainly ones that predated my parents on Facebook and some that made me sound a bit too morose for public consumption).

In its own ironic way, the redesign acknowledges that Facebook saves much of your data, even after you click that delete button. Perhaps that’s exactly why I like it: Facebook is offering us back our past, ice cream stains and all.

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