The tyranny of Facebook's 'Timeline'
Facebook’s coerced transition to the ‘Timeline’ profile pushes us backward into a world where progress means only the accumulation of status and capital.
“From TV to newspapers, from advertising to all sorts of mercantile epiphanies, our society is characterized by a cancerous growth of vision, measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown and transmuting communication into a visual journey. It is a sort of epic of the eye and of the impulse to read.” The disturbing portrait drawn by the French theoretician Michel de Certeau in his influential book of 1980, “L’invention du quotidien” (translated into English by Steven Rendall as “The Practice of Everyday Life”), has lost none of its relevance. De Certeau, who dedicated the study “to the ordinary man,” sought to show how everyday activities, such as walking through the city, reading or cooking can create spaces of resistance to the regimenting systems that control our lives.
Despite the three decades that have passed since its publication in France, the book is well worth recalling in light of the decision by the Facebook social network to force its approximately 900 million users to switch to a new “Timeline” profile, which has sparked criticism and opposition since its launch in September 2011. The sweeping transition to Timeline, which will be completed by the end of this month, represents the most substantial change in the shaping of the network since it was opened to the general public in 2006. The 40,000 surfers who have joined the Facebook group “I Hate Timeline” in the past few months (there are also dozens of other groups bearing similar names) are constantly posting furious status messages against the decision by the network’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to force the new profile on all its users and not allow them to choose between it and the old profile.
Capitalism and revolution
But what exactly is irking the anti-Timeline crusaders and what does it have to do with de Certeau? In contrast to the old profile, which consisted of one middle column in which the updates to one’s personal profile could be seen in chronological order (from the new to the old), the new profile is based on two rows and asks users to choose “life events” that will be presented with high visual emphasis. In other words, instead of a welcome chaos that to a certain degree reflects the user’s everyday life (though too often including comparisons of kittens to hedgehogs or undubbed Japanese video clips from YouTube), Big Brother, under the aegis of Zuckerberg, is now telling us to transform our lives into easily digestible linear narratives.
As Paul McDonald, an engineering manager at Facebook who is in charge of designing Timeline, explained in the network’s official blog earlier this month, Timeline is “a new kind of profile that lets you highlight the photos, posts and life events that help you tell your story.” Amusingly and not coincidentally, McDonald cited two examples of “life events” that most of us will undoubtedly want to “highlight”: “your graduation or the day you bought your first car.”
These examples expose the implicit assumptions of the Timeline creators. First, they are assuming that all of us aspire to translate our life into a coherent, easily understood narrative. Second, they are forcing on us a linear narrative that starts with our first “life event” − our birth − and continues with the accumulation of degrees, marriage, children, buying a home and trips abroad. Third, they draw a total identification between linearity and development, or “progress” in the word’s capitalistic sense (the accumulation of status and wealth).
In the 21st century, the absolute identification of linearity and progress is considered an obsolete relic of the Age of Enlightenment. The crisis of the two world wars persuaded numberless thinkers and intellectuals to reject the “cultural evolution” model and propose more complex models, like de Certeau’s portrait, which sought a return to “everything that speaks, makes noise, passes by,” and to look at human life in circular terms, not as a straight line. Instead of translating the thousands of actions that make up our life into a limited narrative that is nauseatingly identical to the numberless narratives around us, de Certeau suggested that we focus precisely on the rituals and the actions that have become transparent through sheer repetitiveness.
The shift to Timeline marks a return to Facebook’s original goal in the period when the world’s most successful social network was still known as “Thefacebook” and was intended to connect students at the world’s top universities for romantic purposes. When Zuckerberg was designing the network in the Harvard dorms, the last thing that entered his mind was the Arab Spring or the way in which the virtual hookup between millions of users could trigger social revolutions. He was focused on two very different things: the possibility of making fast money and the ability to connect effectively members of the global elite who attend Ivy League colleges. In other words, Facebook is an offspring of capitalism, and its revolutionary potential sometimes blurs the fact that it is a well-oiled cash machine.
Out of the moment
The protests against Timeline, which included calls to boycott Facebook beginning August 9 to force Zuckerberg to retract, are related to the way in which the launch of the new profile exposed the fact that the social network is a full-fledged business operation. But the anger also welled up because more and more Facebook users are starting to realize that they are working for Zuckerberg for free. The shift to Timeline was accompanied by a seven-day “adaptation” period in which users were asked to reedit their old profiles. To shape a perfect “life story” that will appeal to friends, parents, potential lovers and future employers requires many hours of burrowing in old posts, photos in which we were labeled against our will and numberless status messages that were uploaded to virtual space on days and at times we would prefer to forget.
As always, the need to invest time and resources is presented as a privilege, not a demand. In its infinite generosity, Facebook is allowing us to spend an entire week to design our Timeline before it is exposed to our friends. As we hark back to 2007, or try to remember what we were thinking when we decided to upload photos of ourselves wearing a bikini in Sinai, our life is liable to suddenly look quite pathetic. The Timeline universe has no place for the magical moment of the “taste of the strawberry.” It insists on an ongoing present whose whole aim is to prepare us for a future of material achievements. There is no room for “life” in the new world, only for “life events,” and ironically, the everyday remains the preserve of the poor, bypassed by the digital revolution, or of the ultra-rich who employ an external company to manage their profile. With 900 million people each telling a “distinctive” story that sounds exactly the same, the spaces of resistance de Certeau praised so convincingly have never looked more remote.