Timelines Re-visited

Storyline - a proposed service in 2009 and the current Facebook Template for a Timeline

So it seems that Facebook is finally taking it’s Timelines feature out of Beta (now in full production mode) and pretty soon is going to be forcing those of us who haven’t bothered to changeover, to have one. Why have they devoted so much energy to this seemingly trivial feature… and what happened to those services that already existed for creating personal timelines? About 3 years ago I did do some research into the ‘Timeline’ services available on the internet with a view to developing a standalone service for a major broadcaster. So what insights does that give me?

At the time OurStory, CircaVie (an AOL venture) and Dandelife (start-up) were the main three players and had created some traction. Discovery owned a rather poorly thought out offering called ‘Timeteria’ and were looking into the viability of developing it further. My conclusions at the time were that they needed significant editorial input and actually should perhaps lean towards the more ‘group-working’ aspect of timelines (such as the Groups / Pools concept in Flickr where like-minded enthusiasts could share images, videos, opinion pieces on a common subject). Personal timelines it was felt were a pretty big ask from people in terms of populating them with content … and for most people photos and videos were more likely to be the preferred content, and thus services like Picassa and Flickr catered fairly well for these segment of users (Flickr already had a timeline view before 2007!). Our final conclusion was that with broadcast support and features related to the offering (which we rebranded ‘Storyline’) the venture would stand a much better chance of success… the incentive for ‘group collaboration’ would be that, on a monthly basis, a short documentary would be produced based on one of the groups collated work. Naturally there would need to be an element of curation and some initial heavy-weight input (each group we advocated should have a sponsor and for the first groups we further suggested a celeb sponsor). In the end the project was abandoned and 3-4 years on Dandelife and Circavie (that were far more geared to personal timelines and aggregated your content from all over the web) have also disappeared. OurStory is still alive and kicking and has re-branded itself as “The Internet’s Time Machine” and interestingly has a Facebook plug in …

But why have Facebook gone so whole-heartedly for the ‘timeline’ concept?

One of the major barriers to entry is the amount of effort and tagging it took to set up a timeline (in much the same way that the Behance Portfolio or a Dribbble Portfolio takes significant investing of time to upload, theme and tag). Most people just couldn’t be bothered then and probably can’t now. Of course Facebook scores one major point in all this – most of your content that you want to share is already there. Just choose a cover and your timeline is now active. I wonder how long will it be before you don’t even have to choose a cover – you just click an option and FB creates a mosaic of 15 random pictures for you (like an iTunes playlist collection) and ‘Hey presto’ there’s your entire life displayed in a nice easy timeline. Well the last 4 or 5 years worth anyway.

Which of course brings us onto why Facebook would want to spend time developing the timeline … Firstly it opens the door and allows Facebook to start building up a history of its users that predates its worldwide launch in 2006. Secondly it dramatically decreases the ease of switching to another service. Zuckerberg is no doubt mindful of the lessons learnt in the almost inevitable capitulation of MySpace and doesn’t want to lose his 800m ‘active’ user base and so by adding features and encouraging people to spend time uploading, cataloguing and tagging content, this is a sneaky way of upping the ‘can’t be arsed to change’ factor when the next big thing comes along. And of course even if you don’t do anything, you still have probably about 3 years of content all neatly catalogued in a nice handy timeline (well once you’ve changed the dates on those dodgy photos from 1995 you uploaded last year!).

“Everyone gets Facebook Timeline. It’s a chronicled history of your life. Of events that happened. Of moments. Of experiences. Of interactions.” 1

A further reason could well lie behind the fact that it will open up the ad revenue and targeted ad possibilities. More content and tagging means more information about you … and of course that information has both a value and a price:

“A lot of these enhancements open up the visibility of people’s passions. This should make it a lot easier to do ad targeting.” 2

One thing is for sure – Facebook is determined to make Timeline the de facto Facebook profile. In the future, every user will be transitioned over to the new format whether they like it or not. Once you’ve done it there’s no turning back – as someone pointed out recently “much like the mafia, once you’re in, you’re in!”1. Facebook has a history of releasing products people might not be happy about and assuming that one day they’ll get it and realize Zuckerberg was right all along. It might have worked with the relatively recent News Feed re-design – but this might be different.

Why is Zuck nervous about the next big thing? With the exception of the new look service from Twitter, of the other big social network players (LinkedIn, Foursquare, et al) not much happened. In any case FB and Twitter have diverged quite significantly and you could argue are not in the same spheres any more. However Google+ WAS a massive incursion into FB space. It may not have been a total success as of yet, and the adoption rate might still be considered small compared to the mighty FB … BUT one thing IS for sure it’s a helluva lot more successful already than either Google Buzz or Wave! I have to admit I don’t really use Google+ as a friends network yet (and I have had to set up Robert Scoble in a circle of his own just to keep down the general noise!) but there are also a few loud dissenters that view Google’s move into the social space as a ‘sell-out’ from it’s more ‘pure’ information cataloguing roots.

“Google used to be about organizing the world’s information. It was a service to the entire Web. But this social tangent is changing that. It’s turning the Web into a Google+ popularity contest. Google+ is encircling our relationships, and it’s encircling our identities. It doesn’t care how we want to present ourselves; our Google+ profile is our identity as far as Google is concerned.” 3

However, as well as being the de facto search engine for the internet, Google does have that one OTHER major service that FB has found so elusive. Gmail. If Google really does start to release useful APIs working on Google+ in 2012 we could see some real innovation, and in turn more extensive adoption. In the meantime Microsoft, Yahoo! and Apple are still pretty much absent in the social media space – Apple’s Ping is the social network that never really took off (we don’t all wanna live in iTunes just yet), Microsoft is faffing around with something called so.cl, and Yahoo! doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do (despite also having a significant email registered user base in Yahoo Mail). In the music space, Spotify, Pandora and Rdio have made owning music increasingly irrelevant and even the mighty iTunes is being forced into the cloud. But these aren’t yet mainstream platforms (Spotify will probably get there with Facebook Music if all goes to plan – and at least it finally made it’s move to the US last year).

So that’s most likely why FB has ventured into the Timeline. A little bit of ‘anchoring’ it’s users so they don’t slope off somewhere else. I’ve also noticed that, as with Google+, you can now choose who can see your status updates (rather than broadcasting to all) so they are also quick to ‘rustle’ anything that looks like a good idea into the FB corral.

One thing that may trip them up though is the increased focus on mobile (including both SmartPhones & tablets). The Facebook app was very slow to come out natively on iPad and the main mobile app, although usable and useful, is still clunky in places (actually especially in ‘Places’ given that this is the one bit of mobile app-ware that should be great on the move!)

Mobile is increasingly the key social device, because it’s the one you have when you’re out living life, and a possible ‘one-to-watch’ for 2012 is Path. It has totally pulled off the timeline concpet and offers real-time sharing that Facebook can only dream of displaying and aggregating as elegantly. It is undoubtedly a true mobile platform and has a really really nice UI … BUT, and this is a big BUT, you have to start aggregating your content and uploading, tagging and – most importantly – adding friends from scratch again.

And I already just went through a load of that with Google + and I’m not sure I can face it all again so soon after that!!

Quotes and Acknowledgements:
1 – Hilton Tarrant @MemeBurn “Timeline will keep Facebook ticking in 2012”
2 – Blake Cahill @Banyan Branch (quoted in a Forbes‘ article)
3 – Jon Mitchell @ ReadWriteWeb “Google+ is Gonna Mess Up the Internet”

Want to share this?

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012 interface design, opinions, social media, Technology