Are You Ready for Facebook Timeline?

In the next couple of weeks, Facebook will unleash its most drastic redesign ever. We take a look at how you can help protect your privacy.

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In the next few weeks, you’re going to have to make a decision: switch over to the new Facebook Timeline or keep your current profile.

First, a primer on Timeline. Think of it as a virtual This is Your Life, where all of the digital skeletons in your closet are paraded out in front of you. In terms of indulging in backlit nostalgia, it’s wonderful fun; photos of forgotten parties and wall posts from old exes all make for a fascinating walk down memory lane.

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The problem, however, is that you’re not taking that walk alone. Everyone from your new boss to your grandmother can now peruse a neatly laid-out record of your past.

Now, let me make this clear; I like Facebook Timeline, or at least I like its potential. Sure, the current beta version (available now through a labyrinthine sign-up process) sometimes crawls along, especially when expanding a year’s worth of content or loading the Maps feature, but overall it has an attractive layout and makes visiting a friend’s profile a far more engaging experience than it was before.

The bad news is that Timeline is going to freak a lot of people out. A Facebook spokesperson assured me that it will be opt-in, meaning you won’t just wake up one day and find your profile transformed.

For those who do make the switch, beware: Timeline is prime Facebook stalker material.

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In the olden days of several weeks ago, my life was simple. I created a photo album, people commented on it, and off it went to the recesses of my account, only to be found by those who really wanted to dig for it.

Post-Timeline, profiles will become all-you-can-view buffets for casual voyeurs. Load someone’s Timeline and you’ll see months of status updates, photos and more displayed chronologically. Expand the collapsed years below and you’ll be able to trace someone’s history on Facebook all the way down to his or her birth.

First word of advice: Get used to clicking “Hide from Timeline.” You access it through the “Edit or Remove” pencil icon that pops up whenever you hover your mouse over the top right corner of any post.

My first hour on Facebook Timeline was spent doing just that. The profane status updates following the loss of my beloved Lakers to the hated Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals? Magically gone! The crude jokes written on my wall by friends right after we all graduated college? Nowhere to be seen, like Dane Cook’s career!

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Then there are the photos. The most jarring aspect of the Timeline experience is to scroll down and suddenly be confronted with a younger, more inebriated version of yourself. Nobody, not even you, wants to relive the moment you thought you could eat 20 Crunchy Taco Supremes in one sitting.

Before, an embarrassing photo like that would, if untagged, be almost impossible to find. Now, it could appear nice and big in one of Timeline’s two large columns.

Facebook’s answer to this is to let you alter the face of any photo album. This is fairly easy; just click “Change Primary Photo” in the “Edit or Remove” menu and switch out the offending photo with a more innocuous one.

This meticulous combing through of all your status updates and photos is the key to privacy on Timeline. I started my account on July 12, 2004 (information courtesy of Facebook Timeline), which meant I had more than seven years of content to review. At least I was more or less an adult when joining Facebook; I shudder to imagine the stuff I’d have to remove now if I had a Facebook account back when I was 15 or 16 years old.

So, enough about hiding mistakes from your past. How will Timeline let you share TMI in the future?

Introducing “Life Events.” Whether you’re dying to share that you’ve lost a loved one or feel like telling the internet that you’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness, this handy little feature will conveniently place important milestones like those chronologically on your Timeline.

It also lets you tag people. In most cases, it’s no big deal. Getting tagged as part of someone’s high school cross country team or as somebody’s coworker doesn’t feel terribly invasive. Being marked as someone’s first kiss or recently divorced partner, however, might rub some people the wrong way.

Apps will also be a big part of Facebook Timeline. No longer will people be dangerously unaware of your movie choices or morning exercise routine. The downside? Having, say, the Nike+ GPS App broadcast where and when you go on your evening jog could definitely lead to some unfortunate stalking incidents. Not to mention your friends are probably already tired of hearing about what you’re listening to on Spotify.

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Once you’ve given your virtual past a serious scrubbing and learned how not to overshare, there are a lot of things to enjoy about Timeline. Your photos, for example, are neatly presented in large, visible thumbnails by year. It also organizes your “Likes,” which got lost before, making it easier to go back and rediscover a good restaurant or magazine that you first enjoyed years ago.

Another cool feature summarizes your entire friendship with someone after you click “See Friendship,” condensing all of the wall posts, photos, events and friends that you’ve shared with someone on a single page.

A Facebook spokesperson told me that this isn’t necessarily the exact version of Timeline that users will see when it debuts to the public in “a few weeks.” Hopefully some of the slow load times and minor bugs will be fixed. The big question is how many people will make the switch and, afterwards, whether they’ll slowly learn to accept the changes or grab their pitchforks and march towards Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto.

Honestly, I’m not sure which one it will be. While certainly fun to play around with, it’s also the most drastic change Facebook has made in a long time. Remember how users reacted both to the introduction of the news feed and its subsequent redesign? This would be 1,000 times worse–if it were opt-out. Regardless, there will be fall-out; whether it’s enough to push people to another social network, such as the flailing Google+, remains to be seen.

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