My Own Internet?

Facebook’s newest development promises a transparent world – just not for the network’s users

Mark Zuckerberg introducing the new ‘Timeline’ | Photo: PCWorld

Facebook’s latest evolutionary stage “Timeline” incorporates seemingly everything users have ever posted into an easily browse-able, chronological, well, timeline. But what is really new here? The eternal discussion on privacy issues has been around nearly as long as the social network itself.

Everything submitted to Facebook is stored on its servers, the only difference is that now it’s all in the open. All of it: everything users have been up to, that party they attended in 2007, music they listened to three years ago and films they watched, is out there and can be searched by year or by topic. By anyone you’re connected to.

The notion of complete exposure has shocked the Austrian press: “Facebook effectively forces us to perform an online striptease,” wrote the Austrian daily, Kurier. “The network has massively changed the profile pages into a chronology, (so that) every detail of our past will be exposed.”

But no one else seems to care much. The international media has largely underplayed it. BBC News mentions that “Alongside the deeper integration of media content, the re-styling of Facebook’s profile pages is also likely to prove a hot topic among users… and will doubtless prove contentious with its sometimes conservative members.” The others just focus on the business model: the loss of privacy is taken simply as the price of admission for users willing to partake in “the communication network of the 21st century”.

Users do have some control; it will come with the ever-present disclaimer, “if the user so chooses.” Each person can decide how much information to share with their friends.

And this seems to describe the activity of the new Facebook user in a nutshell: We will all spend as much time pruning the information we are sharing as we do creating new content in form of status updates, posts and messages to friends.

What changes the game is the Open Graph, or open user accounts, that give applications beyond Facebook access to users’ preferences and friends. Up until now, user activity outside of Facebook went largely undocumented, save the occasional “likes” and sharing of articles through the site.  But with popular services like the music site Spotify and the online film rental Netflix integrated into the site, all user information that was formerly outside of Facebook’s scope will be accessible and observable, and available, of course, to advertisers.

“Only if the user so chooses”, of course.  But escaping the data vault that is Facebook will not be as simple as switching to another streaming service: In addition to Spotify, the music streaming sites Rdio, Rhapsody, MOG and even newer services like Earbits will be included. The list of alternatives is shrinking fast.  Once it sorts out issues of international licensing, the new Facebook will have warped from a social network into a multimedia hub for all your needs. You will not have to leave Facebook.

The idea is catching on. The Washington Post has premiered a Social Reader app that recommends news stories according to what friends are reading – thus limiting people’s awareness to that which circulates inside their own social circle.

Only “if you so choose”, or course. In an environment where everything seems there for you, in one place, a majority of users may well never venture past the gates.

So should we be worried? In his blog entry from Sept. 22,  Wired’s Steven Levy dismisses the privacy concerns over a perceived willingness to share: “Sometimes (Facebook) encounters objections and… has made strategic retreats, but generally its users wind up embracing the change,” he writes. However, Facebook’s track record in dealing with privacy issues doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in its next moves.

Younger generations may have yet to feel the consequences of so much exposure, but the new Facebook might be a testing case. The success of Timeline depends not only on the partnerships and services it offers. It depends on users accepting it. Timeline will thrive, “if the user so chooses”.

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