Facebook’s Timeline Designer Keeps Track of Every Detail of His Life

Digital designer Nicholas Felton, the man behind Facebook's timeline, tells us the story of his life in numbers, and helps the rest of us do the same.

Noah Kalina

In 2013, digital designer and entrepreneur Nicholas Felton engaged in 94,824 conversations and correspondences of various kinds: 44,041 text messages, 31,769 emails, 12,464 face-to-face conversations, 4,511 Facebook messages, 1,719 letters sent in the mail and 320 telephone calls. While keeping daily track of the information that we create and consume in the 21st century sounds like an impossible task, Felton — the designer of Facebook’s timeline feature who was selected in 2011 by online magazine Fast Company as one of the 50 most influential designers in the United States — does not shrink from a challenge.

Over the past decade, Felton, 37, has developed applications and software that help him keep careful track of every detail of his life, from his heart rate and exercise to the number of cups of coffee he drinks per hour and the number of songs he listens to. The results are published every January in the Annual Report — a collector’s item printed in a limited edition whose buyers include the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He will be publishing his 2014 Annual Report in February at an exhibition entitled “Picture This: Nicholas Felton’s Life in Visuals,” which will be held at the Science Gallery in Dublin.

Nicholas Felton

In a conversation with Haaretz that took place in a café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, walking distance from his digital design office, Feltron, Felton says it all began in 2004, when designers and programmers began thinking about how to make enormous amounts of data accessible graphically. That year, Felton began using the site last.fm, which enabled him to keep track of the number of songs he listened to fairly easily.

His first Annual Report, which he published in 2005, contained data such as the number of songs he had listened to over the year (16,862), the number of flights he had been on (18) and the number of photographs he took (3,754 digital photographs, zero on film). At the time, no software existed that arranged the data in a user-friendly manner, so Felton wrote the code himself. To his surprise, the report got exposure on leading art blogs and drew enthusiastic responses, and the next year, he decided to upgrade his measurement methods and added more challenging categories such as how many book pages he read (3,761) and how many plants he killed that year (four).

People like what they’re used to

The meticulous information-gathering (he describes it as obsessive, but does not think it is a mental disturbance) gave rise to his fruitful collaboration with Facebook, which recruited Felton in 2010 to help develop its timeline. For that job, he moved to California for two years.

Nicholas Felton

“I knew that these changes were going to happen with or without me, and so I wanted to have some input,” he says. “And I think it turned out really well. The activity log didn’t exist when I started... You have to have granular control on all this stuff to hide it or say who can see what, and I think that has been really good for the service. Almost everyone opted in to have timeline prior to being forced into it. It was one of the most loved changes.”

But when the timeline was first launched in September 2011, the feature led to quite a bit of opposition. Some people were concerned that the purpose of the new design was to make room for advertising. To this, Felton says, “Certainly not. Of course, there are revenue concerns as well, but it was not an advertising-first product.”

He adds that the negative reactions did not surprise him. “The timeline is one of the most significant changes in the history of Facebook, and almost every change they do encounters some resistance. People don’t like to let go of what they’re used to.”

When asked whether Facebook’s tendency to magnify the success of others creates a constant feeling of competition, Felton says he sees it as positive motivation, but adds: “It’s certainly way beyond a scale that we evolved to deal with. I find out that I’m in contact with 6,000 different people or companies over the course of the year, which is a mind-boggling thing. You’re right that there’s always going to be someone faster than you, who’s got a better job than you, and you’re going to be aware of it because of these spheres of communication.”

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Born and raised in California, Felton studied graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design. Since leaving Facebook last year, he has been living in Brooklyn, hopping between academic lectures, work with large corporations and private clients, art projects such as his Annual Report and collaborations with art galleries. Over the past two years, he launched the Reporter application for the iPhone and the website Daytum, which helps users document facts of their day-to-day lives, much as Felton does.

Reporter reminds the user to answer certain questions every day, helping them document data such as whom they met with, what they discussed and how many songs they listened to. The information is accumulated and stored, and users can produce weekly, monthly or annual graphs and tables to visualize the minutiae of their lives.

In 2009, Felton asked people who knew him to describe his mood so that he could see whether there was a gap between his feelings and the way other people perceived him. He was glad to see that the gap was not all that wide, but has his doubts as to how much of the data is credible. All the same, he doesn’t buy the argument that these are things it’s better not to try to measure.

“You can make those statements, like ‘We shouldn’t do this,’ but inevitably technology and science will prevail and it will be done,” he says. “The question is what are the downsides and benefits of doing it. You could get to the point where you’re with a woman and you know quantifiably, ‘I don’t love [her] as much as I did the previous woman,’ and is that a good thing to know.”

In 2013, Felton meticulously documented every kind of communication he had with other people. The result was a thick book of which he printed only a single copy, which is kept in a safe. He says the book contains business secrets that have to do with his work at Facebook, as well as intimate conversations, so he published a report that sums up the number of conversations but does not include the conversations themselves.

Farewell report

The 2014 Annual Report will be Felton’s last, he says, marking the end of the decade-long project. To create a farewell report that is as detailed as possible, Felton used the past year to examine the credibility and effectiveness of commercial measuring methods. He came to this interview with three methods of measurement on his person: a Fitbit bracelet, which keeps track of his heartbeat, and the number of steps he takes, calories he ingests and hours he sleeps; a Basis watch, which monitors body temperature and number of breaths, and a Nike Fuelband, which also monitors physical activity. In addition, Felton’s car is equipped with a sensor that tracks his driving habits.

So does having all this empirical data make Felton — or any of us — any smarter?

He sees all these bits of information as “part of a hierarchy where you start with data and you’re trying to get to understanding at the top of the pyramid.” He also wonders about the broader philosophical questions of free will and determinism — to what extent do we really control our behavior?

Take the “gray hairs” item in the annual report. Felton says he likes this category because it deals with things we have no control over. While the reports inevitably document aging, they also give Felton a kind of immortality, in the sense that our digital footprints are a kind of gift to ourselves and to posterity.

“In some ways it’s kind of an autobiography, but it’s also a kind of fetishized design object as well,” he says. “I’ve always wanted this document from my parents so that I could go back to [their] 20s or 30s and see what they were like. And so when my father passed away in 2010 and I looked back... and reconstructed his life, it was cool because there were parts of his 20s and 30s where I could see what was important to him, like travel.”