Facebook Timeline: Putting the Auto in Autobiography

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A first impression of Facebook's new Timeline tool
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"This year, we added verbs," Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg told the f8 Developer Conference today. You need verbs to tell stories, you see, and Zuckberberg noted that the only previously available verb, "like," wasn't up to the challenge of capturing the whole of human experience with the world.

The big announcement revolved around Timeline, which takes your updates and displays them for public consumption. It is an automated autobiographical tool.

Tech 2020 Zuckerberg's talk was littered with references to the importance of story. Facebook's new Timeline feature was "An important next step to help you tell the story of your life," he said. The new product would allow you to "highlight and curate all your stories so you can express who you really are."

Facebook's Timeline confirms what writers have long known: narratives are how we structure our relationships with the world. Stories are how we make meaning. And that's why Facebook wants you to tell stories in the structured format they're giving you. Facebook knows all your human relationships and the products and content you use, but without the stories that animate those connections, they don't know what the data means. Timeline -- and your curation of that Timeline -- is how Facebook is going to find out the stories that you tell about yourself. And that's probably the most valuable information out there.

You get an automatic autobiography; they get a saleable database of the people, places, and products you love. As you highlight the important photos of your life or add your favorite recipes, Facebook will see what people, products, and services have emotional valence for you. Facebook will know how to hit you with advertisements not just based on your behavior (which they already know) but on the way you make meaning of out of your experiences.

I can't decide if I find this insidious or thrilling.

Thrilling because Timeline offers the possibility of discovering some past selves that I've shed or forgotten. Perhaps I can reintegrate them into my sense of self. Insidious because I feel robbed of the ability to write my autobiography with words.

Facebook's version of autobiography is very specific. It is data-driven. It is simple: Alexis likes the iPad. Alexis eats a hamburger. Alexis reads The Innovator's Cookbook. It is a ranked, chronological database of a life. It is technically complex but grammatically simple. It is multimedia, but not rich. It is autobiography without aesthetic effort. It is a story without words.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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