Facebook Timeline Thrusts You into the Participatory Web. Be Prepared.

Facebook Timeline
Facebook profiles are now personal timelines

Facebook‘s biggest and boldest move to date was announced last week at its f8 conference. Timeline is a complete overhaul of Facebook profiles and changes the way user behavior is reflected and shared across one’s network, or social graph. In essence, Facebook expects users to be active participants in the social web, actively sharing thoughts, photos, and more but also sharing semi-passively. What you’re listening to, reading, discovering and discussing across many websites can now be automatically archived on one’s Facebook timeline and published in real time to the Facebook News Feed.

Facebook has always pushed openness and sharing on its users and this latest innovation is bound to spark concern among users who wish to maintain significant privacy controls over their profile and presence. For users that embrace the increasingly open and social nature of the web, the distracting nature of Facebook is about to multiply exponentially.

Facebook hyper news feed
(Click to view bigger): Hyper news feed friend updates at right, click to listen to songs friends are listening to in Spotify; Lists encouraged and seeded at left

News Feed
In October 2009 Facebook made its first significant shift to a focus on the home page news feed. In October 2010 it discontinued apps and revealed a roadmap signaling intentions to bring everything into the news feed. By October 2011 this will be closer to a reality as the news feed will feature a firehose of activity featuring users’ friends and interests and their actions across not only Facebook but on other websites that incorporate Facebook’s Open Graph.

The ability to see not only the primary news feed, occupying the middle of the home page but also to see the “hyper” feed at top-right can be overwhelming. This is where lists come in handy, and fortunately Facebook has begun iterating “Smart Lists” including segmentation by city. So if you just want to see updates from friends in your city, that list is automated if you click on “more” next to lists for your Lists index and then click on the list name corresponding to your city to view updates from people in a 10-mile radius.

The news feed also adds an added layer of engagement — see what friends are doing on Facebook in real time and join in. This is an area that will grow rapidly now that Open Graph has been released in Beta. Many users find this hyper-news feed to be superfluous and annoying and there is at least one Chrome browser plugin available to make it go away.

For now you can view what friends are listening to in real time by visiting http://www.facebook.com/?sk=music and interact, comment and even listen with your own Spotify, Mog, or Rdio account (or check out Earbits). In fact, Spotify is so deeply married to its open relationship with Facebook that it now requires all users to have a Facebook login.

Open Graph

Yahoo! News with Facebook Open Graph integration

Facebook’s Open Graph allows users to visit content on other websites and have it marked on their news feed. Additionally, by connecting to open graph, you can see what your friends have been reading or listening to as the case may be. It’s what Mark Zuckerberg calls frictionless sharing, and it’s so cool that it’s scary. You may end up sharing more than you think. This encourages a level of openness that may seem overbearing to some but it is important to note that there are settings available to opt-in / out of sharing. Frictionless sharing is similar in concept to Facebook Beacon, launched unsuccessfully in late 2007 to great privacy concerns due to the intrusive nature of its opt-in default. But four years later the world is probably ready for this and the sharing options and ability to tweak these settings are more apparent than in the past, at least as evidenced by the Yahoo! News open graph settings illustrated above.

This makes the Facebook Connect experience more complex and potentially more rewarding but also potentially embarrassing depending on what content you are reading. Visit this page to see Facebook’s initial partners announced at the Open Graph beta launch at f8, which in addition to the music partners include The Guardian, Washington Post and Hulu. Open Graph is in Beta and your mileage may vary, in fact, many of the supposed launch partners don’t appear to have any live integration at the moment while others lead to broken 404 pages.

By September 30th the new-look Facebook Timeline will be live for all users according to Facebook. No matter your level of Facebook engagement, interest, or concern regarding privacy, your experience and most notably the appearance of your profile will change. Those interested in implementing Facebook Timeline early can do so by clicking “Sign Me Up” at the bottom of facebook.com/timeline.

The greatest hits of everything that Facebook knows about you will be visible on your profile, in reverse chronological order. This immediately flips some simple privacy features that you may already have in place:

  • Your age: Even if your profile is set to only show the month and day (and not year) of your birth it will appear on your timeline. It may even appear to date you as older than you are (for me it says 2000s, 1970s, Born; I was born in 1975). More on this here.
  • Embarrassing photos: Timeline will pick and choose your greatest hits as it wishes, unless you go through and mark various updates and photos to feature in your timeline.
  • Past lives: Your past jobs, relationships, hobbies, etc will all be easy to access if they are made public. Who you married, who you broke up with, what jobs you started and ended. None of this needs to be points for concern, I think it’s better that we become a more open and less bashful society, however, you may want to take a quick look in case there’s anything out of context to cherry pick.
  • You can add a featured header image: I added a photo I took during a drive in Bariloche, Argentina. Amusingly, the first audible reaction beyond oohs and ahs that I got when I showed Facebook Timeline to my class last Friday was: “hello, MySpace!” I had a similar first reaction to the wider, two-column look and feel of the timeline.
  • Your information: Be careful with passwords and “secrets” for all of your online accounts. If somebody really wants access they might be able to easily find your Mother’s Maiden name or date of birth right there in your Facebook Timeline.

You may or may not agree that Facebook is onto something incredible here. But if you are not already affected by the new features and the Nicholas Felton-esque Timeline design or people complaining about them) you soon will be.

Watch the archived video of the entire Facebook f8 keynote below:

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