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Facebook’s ‘Timeline': More than a new look

If Facebook’s newly fashioned user profile, Timeline, says anything, it says that what you post on the social Web is forever (but it does say more – keep reading). In many ways, Timeline is a safety- and privacy-education tool right in your face (on your screen), as you go. Because “Timeline collects and chronicles everything you’ve ever posted to Facebook,” Slate reports. It used to be that all this stuff … would quickly fade away, never to be seen again once it vanished from the front page of your profile. But now it’s all here, available for everyone in your network to scroll through.” Which is why it’s important for us Facebook users to take the time to curate our pages – a few minutes to design the page and, as Slate puts it, “a lot more time browsing your history for stuff you’d like to feature and stuff you want to hide. So long as your Facebook profile is public, Timeline will essentially serve as your public face on the Web.”

Once you’ve upgraded (or been upgraded, since all Facebook users’ profiles will look like this soon), you’ll have a seven-day review period for curating. What that entails is going to your Activity Log – “a chronological list of every single thing you’ve ever done on the site – every friend request, every status update, every uploaded photo, everything,” as Slate reviewer Farhad Manjoo describes it – and choosing to leave items there, hiding them, or deleting them. Manjoo calls the Log “the most revolutionary new feature since News Feed.” [Here's Facebook's page about Timeline.]

Another thing Facebook and all social media are teaching everybody over time goes beyond public self-expression to self-presentation. That increases awareness on a number of levels: from learning how to be our own best spin doctors (which may sound kind of superficial but is actually pretty important) to page design to awareness of self and others. When we think about how we’re presenting ourselves to different kinds of audiences – the many “publics” of social media, as researcher danah boyd called them in her PhD dissertation – we learn about ourselves. We think about intention, shape values, engage in cost-benefit analysis. This is more about self-knowledge than the narcissism so many critics have reflexively associated with the generation growing up in this social media environment. While constant connection with others close or distant increases the potential for support, it also increases exposure to others’ interests and needs (see this about how we can be “there” for each other a lot more sensitively than 911 and traditional first responders can be). As for being our own spin doctors, it’s not only necessary in today’s networked world, it’s educational and beneficial too. It teaches mindfulness, something great sages and teachers have been teaching all of us for millennia (see this about how that spells success as well as safety).

None of this is to say that social media is some great boon to mankind – it’s just evolution. And not just technological evolution, but social evolution as well. We haven’t just come back around to the early Renaissance or the “Wild West” of a new “space.” We’re seeing elements of those, but also advances beyond those if together, globally, we take advantage of these opportunities. And I think we are, as we work out the social norms of social media (see this). Tell me if you’re seeing it too.

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    January 10, 2012

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