Saturday, 28 January 2012

Could Timeline Be the End of Facebook?

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I have a long history of complaining about Facebook. The reason is that more than any other web site it seems to me that Facebook has become progressively less and less useful over the years. There was a change to the profiles in January 2011 whereby one's status update was no longer displayed at the top of the page. In September 2011 Facebook changed the news feed so it could not be read in reverse chronological order (a change that was so unpopular that Facebook back pedalled on it two months later). Now come 1 February Facebook is making mandatory something that they had introduced last September: Timeline. It seems to be upsetting users as much as, if not more so than, the change they made to the news feed last September.

Essentially, Timeline is a new sort of profile that, in Facebook's words, "...lets you highlight the photos, posts and life events that help you tell your story." With Timeline one or one's friends can more easily check out one's activity on Facebook at any given time. Perhaps because of this there have been concerns expressed in the press over privacy. The fears expressed in the press are that Facebook will apparently share too much of one's information. That having been said, I do not think this is the case myself. Having tried  Timeline on a test profile, I did not notice that it changed my privacy settings at all. What was always visible to friends was still only visible to friends and what was private was still private. Nor have I heard any of my friends who have switched to Timeline complain about privacy concerns.

Related to the concerns over privacy, the press has expressed some concern that Timeline could unearth some past embarrassing activity for users on Facebook, but I honestly do not think this concerns the average person. I think most of us over the age of 16 know better than to post anything that might come back to haunt us later on a social networking site. Besides, once Facebook switches one over to Timeline, it gives him or her a seven day grace period in which to clean up any dirty laundry. I honestly think that the press is wrong with regards to concerns over Timeline seriously affecting user's privacy. Indeed, I haven't heard any of my friends panicking over the idea that now old posts will be more easily found.

Instead, the majority of complaints I have heard about Timeline (and it is one I have myself) concern its layout. Quite simply, unlike the current profile, Timeline is not laid out in a linear fashion. Instead it is laid out in two columns and appears to be meant to be read from left to right. Many users (including myself) have complained that this layout is downright confusing. Indeed, it took me a few weeks to make heads or tails out of my friends' profiles who had switched to Timeline (and keep in mind I consider myself more tech savvy than most). In addition, the layout is not particularly attractive. It is as if Facebook has all of a sudden forgotten the KISS Principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and turned into MySpace in its later incarnations. Indeed, instead of Facebook, Timeline looks like some sort of strange hybrid between Facebook and MySpace--"Spacebook" or "MyFace." Now I do know a few people who have changed to Timeline and like it. And I know even more who prefer the old profile, but do not mind Timeline too much. That having been said, these cases seem to be the exception to the rule. The majority of people who have changed to Timeline seem to hate it. And I do mean, hate it.

With users upset over Timeline, I really must say that I don't understand why they simply did not take it out for retooling shortly after the first complaints emerged in September . After all, I will say there are things about Timeline I do like, namely the ability to easily go to any month in any year to look at one's posts. That having been said, I think this functionality could have easily been combined with the current profile. People woudl still have their wall that could be read in linear fashion, but they could jump to say, December 2007 if they wanted to. Indeed, had they gone that route I do not think people would be nearly so resistant to Timeline as they are.

While most users have gotten upset over many of the changes Facebook has made over the years, they seem to be more upset with the switch to Timeline than anything except the aforementioned changed to the News Feed. I have known a few users who have said that they will stop using Facebook if Timeline is forced upon them. If one looks at any post regarding Timeline on Facebook's own official Facebook page, one will find several posts from people wanting to know how to change back to the old profile or begging them not to go forward with Timeline. What is more pages protesting Timeline have popped up on Facebook. A page called "I Hate Timeline" has over 6000 members. Another page called "Remove Timeline" has over 10,000 members. Yet another page named more succinctly, "Timeline Sucks"," has over 13,000 members. A simple Google search reveals several different petitions demanding that Facebook does not go forward with Timeline or does away with it completely.

Now admittedly, this sort of outrage has happened every time that Facebook has introduced some sort of change, but after the whole brouhaha over the change to the News Feed, I have to wonder that Facebook users do not mean it this time. The simple fact is that over the past three years Facebook has introduced more changes than most web sites have in ten, often against the wishes of its users. I rather suspect that users were tired of the constant changes two years ago. Indeed, is it any wonder that Facebook is now the most hated company in America? That's right, people actually hate Facebook more than the airlines or the telephone company. In the past Facebook could afford to force changes on its users, despite how angry it would make them or how much people would hate Facebook for it (this is not their first time on the Ten Most Hated Companies list), because they were more or less the only game in town. Even with the changes Facebook would make, they were still better than their competitors (MySpace, Orkut, MyYearbook,  et. al.).

Now I am not so sure they can afford to ignore users' complaints about a change. The simple fact is that for the first time in Facebook's history, they have a viable competitor in Google+. Google+ has grown in leaps and bounds since it went public on 20 September. Just this week Google+ crossed the 90 million users mark--something it took Facebook four years to do. And while I know of those who have tried out Google+ and didn't like it, most people I know actually prefer it to Facebook. The reason? It's simple, easy to use, and Google is much more responsive to its users than Facebook ever has been (not only are the Google employees on the site who can answer your questions, but they have handy a feedback link right there in plain sight). I do not think it is much of a stretch for me to say that if Facebook goes forward with Timeline, they might find users fleeing Facebook for Google+, much the same way users fled MySpace for Facebook years ago.

That having been said, I do not think it is too late for Facebook. They have back pedalled on changes they have made before (the aforementioned change to the News Feed). And as much as I have complained about Facebook in the past, it remains a very useful site that is superior to all of its competitors except Google+. If Facebook called off making Timeline mandatory for everyone now and if they gave those already with Timeline the choice of returning to the old profile, I think they could save themselves. Sadly, I do not think that is going to happen, as Facebook has a long history of ignoring user complaints to simply do what it wants. If that is the case and Facebook does not back pedal on Timeline in the months after making it mandatory, we might well be talking about Facebook a year from now the way we talk bout MySpace now.

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