Essays and The Future of the Book

Two Years After Timeline: Facebook and The Neverending Story

By posted at 12:00 pm on October 8, 2013 4

On Facebook’s website, the company advertises Timeline as a tool to “Tell your life story with a new kind of profile,” and informs users, “This is where you can tell your story from beginning, to middle, to now.” It’s been just over two years since Facebook first replaced walls with timelines (the redesign was unveiled September 22, 2011), and the anniversary begs reflection. Might it truly be Facebook, and not the e-book, that threatens the paperback? What are the implications of conflating a Facebook account with an account of one’s life? Has Facebook made us all storytellers?

The simple answer to the last question is “no.” We’ve always been storytellers. From a young age, we demand and create imaginative representations of experience — careful prose describing characters, settings, plots. The best storytellers give us art, and a Facebook profile is nothing if not artifice, the long word for art. There can be craftiness in crafting one’s Facebook image. “Selfless Portraits” (http://selflessportraits.com), for example, is a project that is explicit and playful about this fact.

coverAs far as the implications of taking each Facebook timeline as a story, literary criticism offers some illumination. A story is, according to M.H. Abrams’s classic reference work A Glossary of Literary Terms, “a mere sequence of events in time.” There is no doubt that Facebook facilitates the telling of stories, strictly defined as such. Coders even provide tools to help you break through writers’ block. You can share a “Status,” “Photo,” “Place,” and/or “Life Event.” Instead of using your own words, you can borrow theirs. Stuck for a “Status”? Choose one from the drop-down list of verbs and suggested nouns — you can be “Eating” “lunch,” “Feeling” “sad,” and “Listening To” (according to some ungodly algorithm) “Savage Garden.” If you are experiencing something more momentous than a sad, 90s-themed lunch, select from “Life Events,” neatly accessible by categories like “Work and Education” (most storytellers need day jobs) and “Family and Relationships.” Timeline provides an empty, homogeneous time into which these events can be deposited. These are the elements of a basic story.

But are we really storytellers when we use Facebook? Among many account holders, there is undeniable artistry in descriptions of events, but in terms of time, we lose control. The chronological frame for this living anthology of stories is not as neutral as it seems. J.M. Coetzee once said, “For the reader, the experience of time bunching and becoming dense at points of significant action in the story, or thinning out and skipping or glancing through nonsignificant periods of clock time or calendar time can be exhilarating…As for writing…there is a definite thrill of mastery — perhaps even omnipotence — that comes with making time bend and buckle.” The omnipotence Coetzee describes here becomes eerie when the writer is a hugely influential corporation with ever-changing privacy policies. Regarding the events Facebook stores, the site’s Data Use Policy tells us, “Your trust is important to us,” while it warns, “We try to keep Facebook up, bug-free and safe, but can’t make guarantees about any part of our services or products.” In other words, any omnipotence or mastery users experience is illusory.

Also troubling is the fact that Facebook’s temporal orientation puts undue pressure on its users to conform to its system. At the broadest level, Facebook offers no official options for describing the moment we are in beyond the Western, secular designations we use in America. Algorithms may do their best to approximate emotional rhythms, and users may try to make time appear, in Coetzee’s words, dense and bunchy at highly active points, but Timeline is always indifferent to the multiplicity of lived experiences of time.

Timeline-keepers may choose to represent dips and bunchings of time by posting more frequently or in greater volume, but they are always operating in the given framework of linear progress. The video ad for Timeline zooms, in a couple of minutes, from one Andy Sparks’ birth, to his fatherhood. The power of this arrow-straight framework is visible in the fact that each individual Timeline has an index, like a traditional autobiography. But instead of indexing topically, the points of reference are chronological. What happens, though, to the identities we take on in moments of freedom from the sort of temporality Facebook advocates — the first two weeks of college; a short affair with someone regrettable while traveling; isolated months spent thinking about a dissertation? What does ennui look like? Nostalgia? Deja vu? Unreflected by our timelines, these circumstances do not appear to the public as part of one’s story. Mark Zuckerberg and his team live in a world defined by innovation, and the temporality of Facebook reflects the pressure to “make it new” to the exclusion of facts of who we are.

Facebook, then, becomes our co-storyteller into perpetuity. There is an unspoken power dynamic to which we submit as soon as we turn past a title-page or acknowledge a by-line, or even as we listen to a story over coffee or around a campfire — these storytellers will control our experience of time, but only for a little while. Part of what is so appealing about stories that we conscientiously read or listen to — even serials that leave us hanging off cliffs — is that we know they will end eventually. Not so, Facebook.

Timelines are neverending cliffhangers. Print newspapers and magazines (the traditional venues for serials), books, the spoken word, and even long-form internet writing are finite; the miscellany of Timelines that is our Facebook news feed is unremitting. There is something comforting and life-affirming about the neverending story. The simultaneous escapism and connection Facebook affords is seductive, and the awareness of always living at the edge of history is thrilling. But when that thrill is ever-present, it can add up to anxiety, and anxiety about keeping up with Facebook can replace anxiety about contributing to posterity in other ways. The preoccupation inherent to the activities of reading and writing is ever-present in the world of Facebook, and too often, slacktivism takes the place of activism as a result.

coverAs long as Facebook’s clean, steady, and decisive linearity discloses important experiences of time, its users will never be storytellers in the fullest sense of the term. What if we took other visualizations of time as templates for our stories? Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton present lots of alternatives in their book, Cartographies of Time. And Ralph Waldo Emerson mused in his essay “Circles,”

If the world would only wait one moment, if a day could now and then be intercalated, which should be no time, but pause and landing-place, a vacation during which sun and star, old age and decay, debts and interest of money, claims and duties, should all intermit and be suspended for the halcyon trance, so that poor man and woman could throw off the harness and take a long breath and consider what was to be done, without being fretted by the knowledge that new duties are gathering for them in the moment when they are considering the too much accumulated old duties!

Moments after I found out my uncle died, I sat in numb, helpless shock as Buzzfeed articles and photos of dessert filled my screen — there was no way to record or make communal the pause I felt.

Facebook offers many suspenseful plots, but all of them inculcate in us a linear personal timeline that is simultaneously compartmentalized and continuous. The website’s template for how time works is not the only possibility for structuring events. It’s one that works for the coders and marketers of Silicon Valley, but our hurried, abrupt, languid, lunar, cyclical, sentimental, rooted, broken, repetitive lives deserve better storytelling.





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4 Responses to “Two Years After Timeline: Facebook and The Neverending Story”

  1. Nick Moran
    at 3:37 pm on October 8, 2013

    Great piece, Annie.

    I’ve been on Facebook since my freshman year of college, and since then one aspect of the site that I’ve found particularly fascinating is how it handles actual, corporeal death. The summer after my freshman year, a couple of my Facebook (though not necessarily real) friends passed away, and it was interesting — I would even say haunting — to see how their profiles lingered on afterward, often drawing eulogies in the form of wall posts and “memorial tags” in pictures. As I’m writing this, I just checked in on one of them. It’s had three new wall posts since September. It’s strange to see the profile’s friend count decline over time — some people steadily bow out of their connections to the dead, and others might simply be deleting their profiles.

    Relatively recently, the site developed a means of converting a dead person’s profile into a “memorial page.” I’ve seen these around, but more often it seems like the pages are simply removed, as though on this digital, chronological timeline they cannot even exist as a memory, as though they simply cease to exist in all forms.

  2. Annie
    at 4:39 pm on October 8, 2013

    Thanks, Nick!

    So much for the illusion of control, right? It is so sad and, yes, exactly, haunting, to watch how Facebook handles mortality. Even in the ad for Timeline, it’s described as a tool to “tell your story from beginning, to middle, to now.” You’re explicitly encouraged to think of your story as never-ending, because how depressing (and bad for business, maybe) to be confronted with the reality.

    While it’s strange to observe the different ways people respond to having late friends, I think it might be more disturbing if mourning was standardized on Facebook. What storytelling and memorialization have to do with each other seems like something the company hasn’t figured out just yet. Me neither. I wonder if they’ve got humanities majors on the case.

  3. Ann
    at 2:23 pm on October 9, 2013

    I presume that the timeline was created primarily with a young, unattached (marriage or partner-wise) user in mind. It serves to mark large and small milestones as they occur for the autobIographer to mark her progress through life, in any way that she chooses to measure it, but also to help craft the image she wants to project to the rest of her world.

    As an older person, many of whose milestones occurred before the timeline came into being, I have a different perspective. I sketchily filled in a few significant landmarks knowing that, as a married mom of teens, hardly anyone would be reading my timeline but me. I think it’s only when you are in the vast mix of countless single acquaintances, friends and others looking for meaningful connections that you would study others’ timelines. Or perhaps a few old friends catching up from younger days might glance through. But from the perspective of one with lots of life experience, I can report that my internal timeline is in my head at all times, constantly being amended by how I feel I handled myself today. Recording it on Facebook: totally superfluous.

  4. Stephanie
    at 7:16 pm on October 11, 2013

    Thanks for the article, Ann. It’s interesting to explore the idea of Facebook as communal storytelling, but I think that conflating one’s profile page with an actual story (such as a paperback) to be a bit of a stretch.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind the context in which people use Facebook. In my opinion, Facebook is a (now public) private affair, much like the way people used to write letters to one another. When someone updates their Facebook profile, it’s to notify their limited audience on personal goings-on, not necessarily to tell the story of their life. We don’t read someone’s Facebook profile as a whole the way we would read a story, for instance, and as you pointed out, Facebook users don’t have any creative control over the chronology of events.

    I think it would be a better analogy to consider each update a story, the way you would think of an anecdote over coffee with friends. In that case, I suppose you could argue that one’s Facebook profile is a collection of short stories, but even then, I don’t think it’s any threat to the paperback.

    Anyway, just my two cents.

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