The Facebook Timeline Is Coming, And It Scares A Lot Of People

    January 31, 2012
    Josh Wolford

The new Facebook Timeline is not the most popular feature that Facebook has ever introduced. Granted, it’s well documented that Facebook users are often super-resistant to change, but for some the new Timeline goes beyond minor annoyances like crowded layouts and superfluous features. For many users, it’s a real issue of privacy.

For awhile now, users have been able to access the new profile look if they chose to do so. But since it was still voluntary, many users just ignored it and went about their normal, everyday Facebooking. Facebook has always said that the Timeline would eventually become a mandatory part of everyone’s Facebook experience, but it wasn’t until last week that Facebook announced the switch to Timeline was imminent.

Will the mandatory switch to the Timeline cause you to reevaluate your participation in the network? Are you upset that Facebook is putting it on users to clean up their Timeline data, or do you think users should be responsible for everything the post – even stuff from half a decade ago? Let us know what you think.

Over the next couple of weeks, the Timeline will be rolling out to everyone. Once your profile switches over, you’ll have a week-long “grace period.” During this week, your Timeline view will only be able to be seen by you – this gives you time to clean it up and make it presentable for mass consumption.

Personally, I kind of like the Timeline. I think that it’s a much-needed upgrade of a fairly stale profile page. But then again, I’m not that private of a person and I don’t really care about the skeletons from 2005 that the timeline allow people to dig up if they so choose.

Having said that, here’s some news for Facebook users that have yet to switch to Timeline: it is quite overwhelming at first. I joined Facebook on Halloween, 2004 – and since then have amassed a shocking number of wall posts, status updates, photos, and shared links. And while I wouldn’t call any of it embarrassing, there are some things that if they went away, it wouldn’t bother me. A drunken photo here, an over-zealous political status update there – eight years of living publicly through Facebook is bound to reveal minor indiscretions.

But I know that I’m abnormal in the fact that I don’t really care about all of that. For a large percentage of Facebook users, the company is crossing some lines with Timeline. The main concern is that Facebook seems to have adopted an “opt-out” strategy when it comes to information sharing. The Timeline puts everything out there by default, and it’s the user’s job to clean it up and make sure that they aren’t publicly sharing something that they want to remain private.

Of course, this discussion of “private information” doesn’t just include old, unearthed photos and statuses – but the series of “frictionless” apps that are going to be an integral part of the Timeline. These apps, like “social readers” and music apps like Spotify automatically share your activities with friends. Although Facebook has stressed that the Timeline doesn’t disclose any more private information than the old profile and that all of the apps are voluntary, online privacy groups have voiced concerns.

One, for example, is the Electronic Privacy Information Center. They have asked the FTC to look into whether or not the Timeline violates Facebook’s privacy promises, stemming from a previous agreement with the FTC.

“With Timeline, Facebook has once again taken control over the user’s data from the user and has now made information that was essentially archived and inaccessible widely available without the consent of the user,” they said in a letter, adding that Facebook “promotes oversharing” and wants users to “abandon restraint.”

So, how do Facebook users feel about the Timeline? Is it just a bunch of isolated bitching, or is there mass concern? According to a poll by IT security company Sophos, a majority of people are apprehensive about the changes.

Over 51% said that the Timeline worries them. Another 32% said that they aren’t even sure why they’re on Facebook anymore:

Sophos admits that their poll might have involved people who are a little more concerned with privacy and security issues than the average Joe, but it’s still a striking figure. With this kind of widespread apprehension, it’s no wonder that scam apps have popped up all over Facebook offering to deactivate users’ Timeline.

Other than concerns about crazy stalkers and shocked family members having access to evidence of debauchery, users are worried about identity theft. Could a yet-to-be-vetted Timeline serve as a treasure trove for cyber criminals that use personal information in various unsavory ways?

Sure, but let’s also think about it like this: Facebook isn’t crafting stories out of thin air and using them to populate your Timeline. Anything that the Timeline shows from five years ago, you willfully posted (whether you remember it or not). Sure, Timeline kind of opens up old wounds in a way. Things that you thought buried by time are now prominently visible again. Old information is inarguably much more accessible with Timeline.

But if you shared it, shouldn’t you own it?

And as far as the concern over frictionless sharing with new apps, the answer is fairly simple. If you don’t want everyone to see what you’re listening to with Spotify, don’t connect Spotify to your Facebook account. If their recent actions haven’t made it clear, Facebook is going all-in with sharing. That’s what “frictionless” means – without impediments. The free flow of information has to be curbed by the user, if they want certain activities to remain private.

But the bottom line for some: Facebook is putting the onus of privacy control on the user by putting it all out there and asking everyone to do all the work in making sure their privacy concerns are met.

Will the forced Timeline cause users to jump ship? I doubt it. It seems like every Facebook change brings out the “i’m gonna ditch” threats. Despite this, Facebook continues to grow – because it has become such an important part of our culture. But there is quite a bit of hate out there for the Timeline, so we’ll have to wait and see the reaction when it has finally rolled out to everyone.

What do you think about the Timeline? Are you concerned about how Facebook is handling user privacy? Do you think people are overreacting? Let us know in the comments.