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Sep 26, 2011

From cradle to the grave: get a life on Facebook

Last week the King Farouk of social media platforms, Facebook, announced a raft of changes set to hit in coming weeks. Before you criticise, imagine the possibilities.

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Last week the King Farouk of social media platforms, Facebook, announced a raft of changes set to hit in coming weeks. The number of people who will be affected by the changes is nothing to scoff at: about, oh, 800 million.

The most significant alteration is an overhaul of its iconic Facebook Wall, set to be replaced by “Facebook Timeline”, a sleek two-column redesign that takes users’ existing information — status updates, photo galleries, calendar events, “likes”, etc — and arranges them chronologically from left to right and top to bottom.

Facebook Timeline will not include any new information so, theoretically, the familiar crew of cynics who shriek every time the social media giant changes its settings have no cause to be alarmed. And yet …

When users scroll down to the bottom of the timeline they will see the word “born”. Underneath that, “add a photo”. Facebook wants to know what you looked like when you came out of your mother’s womb.

The Timeline will encourage users to retrospectively fill out their details by adding “milestones and experiences” such as languages learnt, places visited, when they broke a bone, got a new job, lost a loved one, you name it.

In the film The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg’s character spoke of how he planned to use Facebook to encapsulate the university experience: parties, beer bongs, gossip, graduation. That mission was achieved some years ago. Now Facebook’s aspirations appear to be set much higher: to encapsulate the human experience from cradle to the grave.

Many users will not be able to resist feeding the beast. Facebook Timeline looks like a beautiful online scrapbook begging to be filled. Gizmodo described it as “simply the single most ambitious attempt to catalogue the tangled mass of human lives in the history of the internet”.

In the here-and-now social media wields power, influence and encourages voyeurism. From knowing what your friends are watching on TV to taking part in revolutions capable of toppling governments, social media has an awesome immediacy. Moment by moment, second by second, updates about what is happening right now — and now — and now — is what it’s all about.

Facebook Timeline may play a crucial role in altering that dynamic. It will encourage users not only to update what they did recently, but what they did five, 10, 20 years ago, who they did it with, what they thought about it, and what multimedia commemorated the event.

In his latest op-ed on the subject of data mining, Crikey techno guru Stilgherrian wrote that people want to share things online but they don’t want to share Everything. He’s right, to a point, and goes on to observe some sober truths about the data mining trade. But pro-privacy advocates, or those who are by default deeply cynical of Facebook’s organisational manoeuvrings, tend to view all information-gathering initiatives through the same cynical prism, often neglecting to explore what, if any, good comes out of sharing unprecedented amounts of information about ourselves. And there is plenty.

It’s easy to forget that privacy is a relatively new phenomenon. In medieval society, when communities were divided into villages and civilians rarely ventured beyond their boundaries, most of the community had a good idea what others were up to. The industrial revolution irrevocably changed this: cities spread and jetted up into the horizons, people bought padlocks and closed their blinds, communities fragmented and concepts such as private property and one’s own space took on greater importance. People began to protect their private lives as if they were precious commodities.

The internet, and Facebook in particular, is gradually changing this, and privacy as we know it is changing too. Much has been written on the subject of Facebook and “the end of privacy”. “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” Zuckerberg said earlier this year. “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

The company business model is built on the craft of luring users into submitting as much information about themselves as possible. But data mining is a two-way street: the data collected is presented back to us, and often in useful ways.

For decades humans have watched or listened to advertising for things they have little or no interest in. A 12-year-old can’t afford a Toyota Hatchback. An 80-year-old probably isn’t interested in buying Super Smash Brothers on Nintendo Wii. A childless married couple don’t care about a family holiday package to New Zealand, and so on.

Facebook and Google have delivered consumers the most relevant forms of advertising yet invented. Facebook knows who likes certain TV shows and musicians, because users feed them that information. When promos about a new DVD or live gig users have previously nominated as a “like” appears on the screen, they will naturally be interested.

We are currently at the tip of the new-age advertising iceberg. People don’t hate advertising — they hate irrelevant advertising.

Consider the following situation: you’re walking down a street with a friend looking for a restaurant to have dinner. You switch on a special feature on your smartphone and within moments it vibrates. You take it out of your pocket. There is an ad on the screen for a restaurant across the road offering a virtual coupon for two-for-one meals. Next to the ad are a bunch of reviews from friends who have eaten there and enjoyed the food. One of them recommended the coq au vin. Voila — you’ve found a place to eat. You’re happy (provided the coq au vin isn’t overcooked), the restaurant is happy and the middle “man” who brokered the deal (perhaps Google, perhaps Facebook) get a small cut of advertising revenue. This form of “bounce” smartphone-enabled advertising has already been trialled in some US cities.

Critics would raise the following alarm bells: Facebook/Google knew where you were, what you wanted, where you went, what you ordered (perhaps), what your friends previously ate and, if you keep updating your status, where you went after. Champions of this kind of technology will say: so what? You got a good meal at a good price and you have social media to thank.

At this point in time it’s unclear — probably even to the company itself — how Facebook will monetise our memories. Encouraged by the Field of Dreams ethos (if you build it, they will come) the company will eventually find a way to turn Facebook Timeline into a highly profitable venture.

Consumers are right to be wary about what information they share online, and with whom they share it. But in this brave new world, where the core planks of privacy as we know it are gradually eroding, there is also a lot to look forward to.

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