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Did Facebook Just Change Social Networking Forever?

7 minute read
Harry McCracken

Jesse Eisenberg may have played Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a Vulcan-like cypher in The Social Network, but the real Zuck is anything but emotionally distant. When he’s talking about Facebook, in fact, he’s generally downright ebullient. And I’ve never seen him more exuberantly cheerful than he was during his keynote address at his company’s f8 conference in San Francisco last week.

Zuckerberg had two major pieces of news to share. First, he announced that Facebook is replacing its Profile — the page each user gets that displays his or her status updates, Likes, photos, FarmVille triumphs and other items — with a radically revised version called Timeline, which is rolling out over the next few weeks.

(Watch TIME’s video on the new Facebook interface.)

Timeline is prettier than Profile: you can, for instance, add an oversize “cover” photo at the top along with your portrait. More important, it makes it a cinch to backtrack through a member’s entire Facebook history, not just recent activities. It preserves every action of every member and attempts to emphasize the most memorable ones, such as marriages and job changes. You can even fill in your pre-Facebook existence by adding photos dating back to your birth.

Facebook’s other big update, Open Graph, aims to change the social network even more than Timeline will. It lets third-party companies connect their apps and services to Facebook far more seamlessly than in the past — and in particular allows them to seek onetime, blanket permission from a user to share stuff with Facebook. Once permission has been granted, the apps can push out the details of everything the user does, no further human intervention required.

Previously, you had to Like a song on the music service Spotify for your friends to know you’d listened to it. Now all the songs you listen to on Spotify get shown on Facebook automatically — and your friends can listen to those tunes on Facebook if they choose.

A bevy of other companies, from TiVo to the Washington Post, have announced plans to release Open Graph apps that enable what Zuck called “frictionless” sharing. It’s easy to see the day coming when just about anything that now sports Facebook’s Like button instead offers Open Graph’s more comprehensive form of integration.

(See 10 things you shouldn’t do on Facebook.)

Between them, Timeline and Open Graph have a shot at fundamentally altering the social network that Zuckerberg brought about. Old Facebook was about sharing a smattering of your current activities in a way that was usually disposable. New Facebook, once Timeline is fully available and there are more Open Graph apps, will try to come far closer to replicating your entire life — and to keep track of it all for as long as both you and Facebook exist. If it all works, and is as popular as the service has been so far, it could change the way we relate to one another in ways that few websites have.

It wasn’t the least bit startling to see Zuckerberg get giddy over this prospect at f8. He’s the guy who came up with “Zuckerberg’s law” — the notion that the amount of stuff people share doubles every year — and he clearly wants to keep it going for as long as possible. I would joke about him thinking that the site should track users’ activities when they’re asleep as well as conscious, except that it’s no joke: he did say that. (Presumably he was talking about an app hooked up to a Net-savvy sleep monitor like the Lark.)

See “Mark Zuckerberg: TIME’s 2010 Person of the Year.”

What’s going to be fascinating is watching 800 million Facebook users come to terms with the service’s changes. Will they use Open Graph apps to let it all hang out, or will they choose to ratchet up their privacy settings? How many people will give services permission to share everything on Facebook, and then rue it months or years later when something they don’t want the world to know about is instantly distributed to all their pals? Do people really want to burrow back through their friends’ Timelines, investigating what they were doing in 2007 or 2008?

As the new features roll out, some members are unquestionably going to be irate over them. Whenever Facebook changes, some folks are always irate, and Facebook changes more often than any other major online service. (To riff on what Mark Twain said about the weather in New England, if you don’t like Facebook, just wait a few days.)

(Read about Facebook’s privacy features.)

Even though using Facebook and turning on Open Graph are both optional — and it’s still possible to share items selectively or not at all — Zuckerberg and company will be accused of violating users’ privacy. In fact, it’s already happening.

Me, I’m not so concerned about Open Graph’s violating my privacy. (Useful rule of thumb: If you’re doing something you want to keep secret, don’t let it get anywhere near Facebook — heck, if possible, don’t do it online, period.) I do, however, fret that Open Graph might make Facebook feel less personal rather than more so. The concept of Facebook logging my actions — most of them pretty mundane — in mass quantities sounds clinical, not heartwarming. Worst-case scenario, using the new Facebook could feel like living in a Skinner box.

I also like the Like button in its current form — by clicking it, our Facebook friends are editing their lives for us, calling out things that are interesting and ignoring things that aren’t. As Farhad Manjoo points out at Slate, Facebook doesn’t seem to want to restrict sharing to stuff that’s compelling. Actually, a noisy minority of users are already up in arms over Ticker, another new feature, which scrolls through an infinite, uncurated list of your friends’ updates, like Twitter on speed.

Speaking of Twitter, I worry more about the new features’ potential influence on Facebook competitors than their impact on Facebook itself. I enjoy Twitter just the way it is — looser, sillier and more chaotic than Facebook. And I’m glad that Google+ still feels like it’s populated by human beings rather than automatons issuing updates on behalf of humans. If either of these services reacts to Zuckerberg’s grand new vision by mimicking it rather than counterpunching, it would be a shame.

(See Facebook users’ thoughts on the social-networking site.)

I have my concerns, but overall, I’m hopeful that Facebook will get these new features right over time. I certainly don’t think that it has fundamentally misjudged what its users want. The service gets into more mini-controversies than the average tech company. Unhappy campers threaten to abandon it more or less continuously, and it sometimes has to adjust its plans on the fly. Over and over, though, most users eventually come around to Zuck’s way of thinking. By the time the next f8 conference rolls around, I suspect, it’ll be tough to remember what Facebook — and life online — was like before Timeline and Open Graph existed.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.

Watch TIME’s video on how people of all ages are connecting through Facebook.

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