Facebook’s Timeline: Seductive and Dangerous?

Applications Integrated into Timeline Track Everything that You and Your Friends Do

March 22, 2012

Facebook’s new Timeline is much more than a new user interface. It’s a seductive forced march designed to lead us all into a marketers’ nirvana in which our activities and life events are tracked. Timeline seduces users into capturing their life events (births, graduations, new car, new home, new job, new pets, etc.). But it does a lot more than that, it seduces consumers into interacting with social applications that will automatically post their activities (music listened to, books read, recipes clipped, miles run or biked, articles read, videos watched, etc.) on their Timeline and share them with their friends through Facebook’s newsfeed. Everything you do through these Face-book-aware applications and websites is explicitly monitored and logged. These applications are not only tracking and posting your activities, they are also gathering information from your friends profiles without their knowledge.

What can you do? Timeline is not optional. So if you continue to use Facebook, be judicious about which applica-tions and websites you authorize to track your activities. And please make sure that you are not using applications that require the sharing of your friends’ profile information without their consent. To protect yourself from your friends’ unintended sharing of your information, make sure you have unchecked all the boxes in your Facebook Account Privacy settings for “How people bring your info into apps they use.”


Facebook will soon be turning on its Timeline feature for all users, even those who have not opted in to having the key events in their lives organized and searchable chronologically. Many Facebook users are speaking out against this planned forced migration. But, as with Google’s recent privacy policy changes1, Facebook appears to be adamant about making this change because of the presumed benefits that will accrue to marketers and advertisers.

Marketers know that “life events” like getting engaged, married, having a baby, getting a pet, moving, and changing jobs are prime opportunities for targeted advertising. It’s also true that having a complete chronology of life events in users’ profiles provides marketers with more knowledge about what makes us tick.

What concerns us about Facebook’s Timeline migration is that, along with the rollout of Timeline, Facebook is making evolutionary changes to its application-sharing APIs. Facebook applications are the primary means used by most marketers to capture information about us and to promote targeted offers to us. The current Facebook OpenGraph APIs encourage application developers to capture information not only about us, but also about all of our Facebook friends. Facebook applications can also codify, capture, and time/date stamp the actions we take within those applications and/or on Facebook-aware Websites. These actions may seem innocuous, but do we really want every action we take online to be tracked and stored by Facebook?

How MUCH Information Can Facebook Apps Access?

How MUCH Information Can Facebook Apps Access?
(Click on image to enlarge.)

© 2012 Facebook

Slicing and dicing the Facebook Social Graph. Here’s a Facebook app called Wisdom that lets you slice and dice information about people in the Social Graph. Which Facebook pages do parents of young kids like, and which ones do those who are also online shoppers like the most? That’s the information being shown here. There are many ways to slice and dice this database.


Timeline Is MUCH More than a Pretty User Interface

In September 2011, Facebook added a new feature called “Timeline.” It organizes all of your photos and posts into chronological order so that you and your visitors can scroll through your postings and photos (or posts or comments others have made about you) based on chronology. At first blush, this seems like just another interesting and useful dimension for our Facebook profiles. It’s an attractive new user interface (which some people like and others don’t). It’s another way to organize things and a nice way to “tell our stories.” It’s quite seductive. As soon as you begin to organize your Timeline, you think of more things you want to share with friends and family. You begin to look around for more and better photos you can share.

Timeline Is Seductive and Potentially Dangerous

But there are several problems with Timeline...



1) See "How Does Google's Privacy Policy Affect You? It’s Time to Pay Attention to How Google Is Tracking Your Online Behavior," by Patricia Seybold, February 23, 2012.


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