Facebook timelines: mind the gap

Facebook’s new Timeline feature is seemingly intended as an autobiography in the automatic sense: your life distilled to a series of status updates interspersed with red-eye, all filtered and summarised by the invisible hand of logic, the unblinking, unknowing eye of the Zuck-3000.

I’m intrigued by what my own timeline will show. I don’t write the updates Facebook expects. There’s rarely a sense of where I am or what I’m doing. I never say “Sitting in Bill’s, writing a blog post about Facebook timelines.” They’re my tweets, echoed; my rants, hashtag games, rubbish jokes, and other nonsense. My own timeline is likely to consist of other people’s photos of me, some events, and a bunch of non sequiturs. Here’s me at Chris’s 40th; here’s a link to a blog about Facebook; here’s a photo of a typo. Nothing of deep historical or biographical interest, I imagine.

For eager, unjaded pubescents pouring every numbing detail of their lives into Zuckerberg’s database, the timeline will be great – until it isn’t. Until a friendship disintegrates – as it will. Until a relationship ends acrimoniously – as it will. Then the timeline becomes a sniggering, taunting reminder, Gripper Stebson poking Ro-land in his chubby face, forever.

Thus, inevitably, it will become another part of our life online that needs pruning, tending, curating, culling. It will beg for attention, Tamagotchi: The Next Generation. Users will constantly edit their lives. I am going out with Terry from form 3C, I have always been going out with Terry from form 3C.

Facebook wants your timeline to be your autobiography, but it won’t be. For most people it’ll be like a Hello! magazine puff-piece: all of the glamour and the shiny taps, and none of the hoovering.

You won’t see, perhaps, underage drinking at a dodgy party featuring a jazz cigarette, or cruelly excised former friends or partners. I think there’ll be more of the latter omissions than the former: people’s youthful indiscretions appear to be becoming less important. Clinton had to claim he “did not inhale” but Obama didn’t; Cameron successfully sidestepped questions about his own drug use and not even the Daily Mail proclaimed the End Times. I think this is a natural societal evolution, not caused by the Internet but certainly made more visible and – crucially – searchable by it.

However society adapts to decreasing privacy, it’s the gaps that are most interesting. Facebook doesn’t know what happens in the gaps, in the mini dark ages that pepper my history and everyone’s history. It aims to know all but does not, will not, cannot, even with the vast data-buckets that it and the internet in general can supply on-demand for each of us. Like the missing years in a CV or the crackle as an old film skips a few frames, what is absent is often far more interesting and revealing than what is present.

I therefore submit this humble prediction. Facebook’s timeline will ultimately be no tell-all semi-autobiography. It’ll be a sanitised, part-fictionalised history. Stalin’s airbrushing writ large; Big Brother’s ultimate rewrite.

And employers won’t look at your timeline to decide whether to interview you or hire you: they’ll look at your friends’ timelines.


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