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Thinking about Facebook’s Timeline

A couple of days ago, I was home chatting to my son. The topic of conversation moved to recent events in North Korea; we touched briefly on a cartoon depicting satirical “last words” associated with the passing of Kim Jong-Il (“I told you I was Il” …. apologies to Spike Milligan). I remarked that I’d seen some bizarre photographs of life in North Korea recently, and he mentioned that vice.com had done a really interesting video some time ago, and asked whether I’d like to see it.

I said yes.

And he said:

I’ll put it on your Wall, Dad

Like others in his generation, he uses email, but sparingly and reluctantly. For him, posting something on someone else’s Wall is the natural thing to do; it is the way he shares information and social objects with his friends.

His younger sister doesn’t do e-mail at all. Some months ago, I heard her tell a friend:

He’s lost his phone, so you’ll have to inbox him on Facebook

She doesn’t even use the word “email”, that’s how far removed she is from the mail culture. [Ironically, she uses a BlackBerry nevertheless, as do many of her friends. They’re big on BBM.]

Her elder sister, my firstborn, was my third friend on Facebook. [Dave Morin was my first; his wife Brit Morin, then Bohnet, was my second.] She too engages with her friends mainly via Facebook Walls.

As of tonight, I understand the Wall’s coming down, to be replaced by the Timeline.

I think this is a big deal. And to explain why I think that way, I’d like to take you on a trip back through my own Timeline. Down Memory Lane, as they say.

The story begins with Wal-Mart and then continues with Amazon.com before coming to today and Facebook. [It also explains why I’m fascinated by Marc Benioff’s vision for the Social Enterprise, something I will touch upon later. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so enjoying my time at Salesforce.com].

Each of these companies is what I term a “Noah business”. Like Noah in the Bible, they saw something that others did not see, a great storm coming. And, like Noah’s ark, they built infrastructures to execute on their vision.

Wal-Mart decided that they could put stores in places where others wouldn’t, because they saw the store as part of a network. A town didn’t have to have 100,000 people before they opened a superstore there. They built distributed infrastructure to connect stores up, located distribution hubs to serve networks of stores more efficiently, built up a nervous system with the store at the edge. Competitors had to follow suit or die. K-Mart anyone? If you’re interested in the story, this HBR article by Pankaj Ghemawat in September 1986 is a good place to start.

Over a decade later, Amazon did something similar. They decided they could ship books to places where others wouldn’t, they saw the customer as part of a network. They built the infrastructure to deliver as little as one book to a customer’s home address, and the connected customers, using their own computers, reviewed and recommended Amazon products and services to each other. Amazon invested in making sure they could serve networks of customers more efficiently, and built up a nervous system with the customer at the edge. And again, competitors had to follow suit or die. Borders anyone? If you’re interested in the story, this HBR article by the late CK Prahalad and MS Krishnan is a good place to start.

And now we have Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s genius is often quoted as being around the “friend graph”: Facebook saw the relationship as part of a network. They built infrastructure to deliver relationship glue to everyone, and focused heavily on helping people share social objects. They invested in making sure that they could serve networks of relationships more efficiently, and built up a nervous system with the social object at the edge. And yes, again, competitors will have to follow suit. Or die. If you’re interested in the story, reading David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect is probably the best place to start.

[Of course, to do that, you should go to Wal-Mart and buy an Amazon Kindle, then download the e-book,  to complete the circle of my story elegantly].

Relationships thrive around social objects: by sharing experiences around what you have in common, you build the wherewithal to withstand the differences that will come. Jyri Engestrom and Hugh MacLeod are well worth reading in this context, it was through them that I really understood the importance of social objects.

Today, when I look at Timeline, what I see is an efficient engine for sharing, commenting on, “liking”, or otherwise engaging with, social objects. The original Wall was an early attempt to do this, but it was limited in its ability to help us understand the relationship networks in the context of the social objects. Timeline allows us to view the community of interest around an object more vividly, more easily. Time and location data are also easier to comprehend.

One way of looking at the Wal-Mart-Amazon-Facebook sequence is to compare it with the mainframe moving to midrange, PC and mobile. When I first heard Marc Benioff speak about the Social Enterprise, he made this point about how excited he was to be in an industry that’s evolved that way (from mainframe to midrange to PC to mobile); for some time now, he’s been reminding people that when he founded the company (along with Parker Harris) the question they were asking themselves was “why isn’t all enterprise software like amazon?”…. and, not surprisingly, some years later, the question they asked was “why isn’t all enterprise software like facebook?”

To my way of thinking, the Social Enterprise is the natural evolution of all this. Some companies need help in the Wal-Mart phase, connecting up their stores and employees. Some companies need help in the Amazon phase, connecting up their customers. Some companies need help in the Facebook phase, connecting up their relationships and their ability to share.

And some companies need help in connecting their Wal-Marts and their Amazons and their Facebooks into one open ecosystem.

The Facebook Timeline, by making it easier for us to visualise activity around the social objects we share, will help us understand more about us, our interactions, our relationships. Location and time will become more easily discernible. The text and still photo and link that dominated the Wall will evolve into a richer environment with audio and video, persisted when required (even if it was streamed earlier). It will help us understand our sharing habits more precisely: active and passive sharing will evolve further, as will the use of Like and Share. Communities will form around the conversations that the comment streams represent.

And Facebook will continue to evolve. And adapt. And learn. And share that learning with us.

Do I think Facebook has done everything right every time? Of course not.

Do I think there are significant learnings to take place, about privacy, about confidentiality, about the right to be forgotten, about educating people on good practice and prudent usage, about preventing stalking and cyberbullying and and and? Of course.

Do I think that walled gardens are a bad idea, and that open ecosystems are the way to go? Of course.

There are lots of things wrong with facebook. There are lots of things wrong with lots of things. One of the things I like about facebook is that people listen to views and complaints and then proceed to make changes in response. Not many organisations do that as effectively.

So, while I see a lot of comments aired about Timeline, I’m for it. I think it’s part of the evolutionary process we’re all in. And I look forward to learning more….. I guess this post is going to get some serious flaming, praising facebook is not the way to become popular :-)

Posted in Four pillars .


14 Responses

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  1. Daen says

    Completely agreed. For a while now, I have lamented the paucity of search tools on FB. Ordering by time and location is an excellent start. I’d also like to search on social interaction (where friend X commented and friend Y didn’t for example).

  2. Julie T says

    Very thoughtful JP! I have to agree, as far as the timeline goes, it’s simply a new way of reading someone’s wall. Which, when we first joined FB it took us time to learn how to read and navigate, and understand it’s true value. And then “new facebook” changes and redesign and frustration and flames ensued from some, but we figured out how to adjust and we’re all still here. Now, with the new Timeline, yet another time to “learn how to read again”. This time how to read dynamic columns! We can’t avoid it, we need to accept it. As you say, it’s evolutionary.

    But what you really got me thinking, was that most of your comments are representative of businesses (corporate landscape) and our first world “communication and digital interactions” while having ubiquitous access to internet. How can this new “social medium” impact developing countries and communities? While this social media is changing rapidly for “us”, the developing world is learning from our growth and evolution and at times, leapfrogging some of our “antiquated” technologies. Cell phones are pervasive in the developing world, but how many of these cell phone users ever had land lines? Cell phones have also revolutionized the use of mobile money. What about eReaders? Was there ever a big market for publishing and printing local language books in countries where they could barely afford a library at the local school. Now, with eReaders, what are the possibilities? What are the questions we’re not asking about how these tools and technologies can provide social positive impact in the developing world? And how can we make the social social impact happen now?

  3. Oliver Demuth says

    I think you preempted the flaming well enough. I know it’s not popular to praise Facebook but I have only two friends who don’t use Facebook. We are stuck with new big blue whether we like it or not. Timeline makes sharing and connecting more easy and engaging than ever before. Check out my timeline for a 1972 photo of where it all started for @city_dad. Am I the only person to find this compelling? Btw, I love that your daughter uses the word “inbox” instead of “email” and that she doesn’t use an Android or iPhone. Cheers and happy holidays.

  4. Michael Lewkowitz says

    … and whether we like Facebook or not, at the moment it is a critical piece of infrastructure of the current web. Thanks for helping put that back in the context of the broader evolution.

  5. Adrian Chan says

    You dig deep, and I like it. But I have a few differences on use of social objects, and on sharing around social objects.

    i don’t think that the social object model applies to linguistically-mediated interactions. It is too limited, it lacks a real action model, and it subordinates communication to object and context. In other words, it presumes that communication around a social object is communication about the object. As we all know, it often has nothing to do with the object, and everything to do with a shared context — if an object is subordinate to context, then, there’s no need for an object at all, just for context.

    Timeline sharing is not social object creation. it is perhaps context creation. If I share an object, and you share the object, we have both shared the same object. But we did so for our own reasons, to our own friends, etc. We have nothing in common with each other. The logical fallacy is common. Amazon and other companies are built on it: I like X, you like X, therefore we are *alike*. False.

    Timelines are stream modification and as such are a step forward in the engineering of frames of communication. But they don’t require that communication be about a shared object (whether that object was shared by several people during a period of time, or whether the people have shared interests, objects aside). These frames of communication permit multiple interactions to develop: between people about each other; between people about an object; to a person but aggregated with other comments to a different person (collected into a story).

    The point will be, I think, to engineer multi-faceted communication so that real estate is created for the purpose of supporting and related ads and promotions. So any means necessary: allow people to communicate, be it post, share, like, comment, etc. Facebook is reframing interaction. I don’t think it’s got do with objects. It’s got to do with social.

  6. JP says

    @daen I think you will see better search and visualisation tools pop up now that the timeline is out there….

  7. JP says

    @julie I have always hoped for an emerging and developing country “leapfrog”, built more around wireless than cellular; the India I left has an average landline wait time of 3 years. now you can get a mobile phone in 3 minutes. as smart device prices drop further, we will see the enormous impact of the technologies on health, education and government. watch this space

  8. JP says

    @oliver the timeline as scrapbook and memory is one thing, but I tend to think the timeline as biographer is bigger than that, because of the reinforcement of contemporaneous comments and views and reviews and likes and dislikes…..

  9. JP says

    @michael glad you liked it. I believe enough in the power of the web community to expect that we will, over time, make sure that fb does what we want it to do. they’re pretty good at listening

  10. JP says

    @adrian, I mostly agree with you. I’ve never thought that the social object plays anything more than a catalytic role. but catalysts are important until the equations get going.

  11. Michael Daley says

    Buckminster Fuller pointed out that the the mission critical function of pollination occurs when bees do their work to collect pollen to feed, and make honey. Somebody help me with the “p” word that describes the ripples in the world, which occurs from activity intended for one purpose which creates highly beneficial ancillary effects. This prompted by the making of shoes, and the relationships which lead to transactions. Conversations may be better defined as interactions, be it verbal intercourse or otherwise?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Some ramblings on Facebook’s Timeline linked to this post on December 29, 2011

    […] JP points out, the Facebook Timeline makes it easier for us to visualise activity around the social objects we share. This will help us understand more about ourselves, our interactions, our relationships. Location […]

  2. The Open Graph | Any Other Business ~ AOB linked to this post on December 30, 2011

    […] I still stand by placing our bets on Facebook, its social graph and group buying. Firstly, Facebook is still growing as a marketplace with over 800 million users. It accounts for a very hefty chunk of web traffic now owning 95% of social media media networking time. The advent of the timeline has been endorsed by many including one of my personal sages, JP Rangaswami in this very reasoned post. […]

  3. Is Salesforce.com Planning a Facebook Style Timeline for Chatter? | ServicesANGLE linked to this post on January 4, 2012

    […] theory makes sense when you read what Salesforce.com Chief Scientist JP Rangaswami says about the Facebook timeline which he wrote during the heart of the pre-Christmas holiday […]



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