Facebook’s Timeline Is Here. Everybody Panic!

What Facebook's new profile tells us about the fight for control of the web.

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If you’re reading this piece, published on a tech blog, you’re probably sick of reading about the looming Timeline takeover. Another Zuckocalypse? Again? Yes, Facebook has a new redesign that it’s rolling out for all users over the next few weeks. No, you don’t have a choice about it. (Sorry.) There are reasons for Timeline other than Facebook’s “another year, another profile” pattern. In this week’s print issue of TIME, I look at what Timeline really means for the company: not just a design overhaul, but a fundamental change in strategy.

Yesterday’s $5 billion initial public offering filing (analysts say it could go for as much as $10 billion) will likely give Facebook an even bigger shadow to cast over the competition, but to avoid the fate of the Groupons, the Zyngas, or the Renrens of the world, Facebook must present a future worth investing in. Timeline is a reinvention of the way Facebook functions. Instead of focusing on immediacy – Twitter’s bread and butter – it places value on the past.

(MORE: 5 Things You Should Know Before The Facebook Timeline Switch Happens)

“It was so frustrating to be in a world where social media had prioritized just the present,” says Facebook product manager Sam Lessin. “It’s like saying you can capture everything by categorizing what’s going on just this second everywhere in the world.” To counter the Twitterization of social media, Facebook has created a robust story-telling tool, something that will not only give people a reason to invest more time looking at things on Facebook, but also show them how invested they already are.

“I think what Facebook is attempting to do is help people better tell their story in the absence of their own storytelling prowess, says Brian Solis, analyst and author of The End of Business as Usual. “It’s giving us a lovely platform in which to introduce ourselves in a way that is complimentary, but at the same time that triggers reaction, engagement, sharing – the social effect.” But Facebook didn’t stop here.

With more than 60 new Timeline apps available right away — apps that log your digital footprint on other sites onto your Timeline — Facebook is positioning itself to become the online hub for social activity by aggregating our digital experience in once spot. Already, one in every seven minutes spent online and three out of every four minutes spent on social sites are done so on Facebook, but as the social space grows, Facebook knows there are other perfectly good networks vying for your attention.

(PHOTOS: Life Inside Facebook Headquarters)

Frictionless sharing embraces this competition, and invites you to add your experiences on sites like Pinterest, Goodreads, or Turntable.fm to your profile. Now, you don’t even have to be on Facebook to use Facebook. And all the while, the Facebook monster gathers more information about you – yes, information it’s able to monetize. And users aren’t pleased.

Even slight Facebook changes seem to evoke howls for mutiny these days, though to users’ credit, a rocky history of missteps doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the company. In the past, Facebook made it tough to remove photos and data from the site. It was a string of mistakes that began in 2007 with the now infamous Beacon, an ad ploy that touted users’ shopping practices to their friends, and continued in 2009 with the release confusing privacy controls. But privacy is the red herring here.

Users aren’t upset at Facebook for suddenly making their entire Facebook history available – it’s only accessible according the settings you’ve already had in place – they’re upset over the re-calibration of their content that Timeline requires. (My colleague Claire Suddath just went through her own profile, and wrote about the hilarious stuff she’d forgotten, or blacked out, here.) We may hate Facebook for pointing it out, but we’ve all got some editing to do.

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