FaceSpace

Who said Facebook Timeline was confusing?

It’s that time of the year again; Facebook has undergone yet another transformation.

In other words, Facebook users are inevitably about to get angry about a change that will soon feel like a piece of furniture.

This time it’s a blast from the past, with Facebook Timeline inviting users to scroll through their living history, beginning from birth. The upgrade comes with a new feature that enables users to broadcast certain “life events” to their friends. For instance, I could add a life event to 2007, to mark the first time I logged onto MySpace. I could then add another event – to December 2011 – to mark my long-awaited return to that very same website.

Before my remarks are misinterpreted, I must assert that the latest changes to Facebook will not drive me back to the Mickey Mouse days of MySpace. Yet on first impressions, one may be inclined to indeed consider Facebook version 6.0 (? – who knows what version they are really up to…) the resurrection of everybody’s favourite high-school playground.

I believe these doom prophecies are unwarranted. First of all, MySpace wasn’t as bad as everybody now makes it out to be (after all, didn’t we use it religiously for the best part of two or three years?). Secondly, Timeline shares few similarities with the once-great social networking website.

The most notable feature of Timeline is the profile page “cover photo”. Designed to complement the standard profile picture, the cover photo enables users to personalise their page more than any feature before it. Perhaps it’s the outcome of years of angry feedback emails from users, each one pleading Zuckerberg and co. to let them change the colour of their profile. After all, if you could do it on MySpace, why can’t you do it on Facebook?

The problem with MySpace’s personalisation was that users were given far too much freedom. Children unfamiliar with the language of HTML or the universal laws of aesthetics would turn their profile page into a garbage heap, with obtrusive banners, self-loading videos and unnecessarily cumbersome photos making navigation a painful exercise. No MySpace page was complete without having to scroll horizontally a good centimetre or ten.

MySpace. Remember?

In contrast, Timeline offers no such luxuries. At most it gives users the opportunity to select a few key features to highlight on the front page (a choice of two out of “Likes”, “Notes”, “Map”, “Subscribers” or “Subscriptions”). Moreover, on the timeline itself, users have the option to make some of their previous updates or links larger than others.

I know, right; I’m outraged too.

Other than those minor choices, the design of the profile page is essentially a watertight structure. On the biography page, for instance, users aren’t even permitted to drag and drop their basic information in a creative arrangement. Consistency has always been Facebook’s philosophy and it’s that very ingredient which has kept us coming back despite our empty threats to leave. Well, that and the convenient reason that everybody else uses it.

While MySpace was about narcissistic pride and poor design, Facebook has always been about stalking. The first point of call on a new friend’s Facebook page may be the “Info” tab but rarely do we return to that side panel, often preferring to scroll through their recent status updates or embarrassing photos.

Timeline combines the best of both worlds, allowing users to examine their friends’ history, year by year, month by month. At the same time it invites users to feel a greater sense of ownership of their profile page, to feel pride in their history, their photos, their frapes, and their late-night status updates about God-knows-what.

Much of the dialogue about Timeline has revolved around this very concern; if my history is open for all to see, that means that x can see y! But if this is a reality check for people, then surely they have been living under a rock for the past half-decade. All information we share on Facebook has always been accessible to our friends, old and new. A change to the design and navigation won’t re-open the wounds of those impulsive wall posts we’d prefer to forget. All it does it make such posts more searchable.

The age-old rule of Facebook applies as much today as did an eon ago; if you don’t want people to see it, don’t publish it. Furthermore, if you don’t want somebody to be able to read you like an open book, then don’t accpet them as your “friend”. But that’s a matter of debate for another afternoon.

The following weeks no doubt promise a backlash over people’s feeds. “Why does Facebook keep changing?”; “OMG! Timeline is so ugly”; “I’m moving to Google+… who wants to join me?”. My natural response to such negativity is to remind people that Facebook is a free service and that the latest feature is optional (well, for the moment at least). No person on the interweb has any formal or legal obligation to be on Facebook.

Such smart-alec remarks on my behalf, however, have no rightful place in the ever-pleasant sphere of social networking. After all, Facebook’s primary purpose – aside from stalking – is whingeing and I have no right to waver that right on behalf of anybody but myself.

All that I will say is that Timeline deserves a chance. Despite our reflex action to complain and whine that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, Timeline will probably improve the average user’s Facebook experience. In fact, in a month’s time – if it indeed takes that long – the transition will have been long forgotten. Just as we have now all forgotten about Facebook’s most recent cosmetic surgery (the changes to the news feed and the ticker box, remember?), Timeline will soon be embraced without a second thought.

And if it doesn’t, there’s always MySpace.

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