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I'm Drew Breunig and I obsess about technology, media, language, and culture. I live in New York, studied anthropology, and work at PlaceIQ.

On Facebook Timeline: Teaching Data to Speak Humanely

Yesterday, Facebook unveiled their new “Timeline” design. Largely imagined by Sam Lessin and Nicholas Feltron, the design coaxes personal actions recorded by Facebook into a humane, emotional, interface for a given history1. Users can delve into their content not as images, notes, and actions, but in a timeline interface that is more natural for humans.

After exploring the interface last night, I believe Timeline represents an important shift in social networking, one which refactors the technology’s interface to a language used prior to its introduction. Every significant mass technology evolves in a similar way, graduating to a form so natural and intuitive that cultural theorist Stuart Hall refers to this quality as “of courseness”.

The shift Timeline instigates is similar to that brought on by the iPod, which arranged MP3 files by artist and album instead of adopting the folder hierarchy navigation used by existing devices. The old players, much like the old Facebook, presented information in a way the filesystems or databases viewed it. Apple refactored this data back into a familiar interface; one more similar to the ways humans interacted with the same language prior to it’s digital translation. The iPod turned files back into songs, the Macintosh turned the monitor back into a desktop, and Timeline is turing posts back into a stories2.

This refactoring of digital tools back into the language of the process it was designed to improve is a constant theme within the last half century of consumer technology. The push/pull between tech advancement and mass user comprehension see-saws back and forth towards an optimized future.

Eventually, technology and its design advance far enough to disappear leaving only the content behind. For example, our children will never know that there was once media dedicated to the deliver of music. To them a song or album will play on any device, regardless of service or OS. Playing a tape, CD, or LP is a wasted step. They will just play songs3.

In a nutshell, we can descripte this process as such: technology eventually divorces content from a specific medium. Content becomes not formless but form agnostic, with the ability to live wherever a human might want it.

Consider weather content. For decades it lived in the world as a ‘weather report.’ Its presense was conditional on a specific medium being present, like a local news show, newspaper, or almanac. Each of these media fit conditions that weather required: they were local and daily in occurance (at least). Fast forward to now: weather is on every device with an internet connection. My game console, phone, website, billboard, and elevator screen tell me the weather. Searching for local weather on Google doesn’t even require advancing to a page as Google just plops it in the results. The Weather Report is gone, replacing it is simply ‘Weather,’ the one thing humans cared about in the first place. Ubiquitous technology divorced weather from the report and seeded it everywhere we wanted it.

But weather and music are relatively simple. They’re portable and their general usage is relatively predicatable. But what of Facebook? How can you refactor social networks so their native tongue is human (not technological) and their content is divorced from any specific form? Massaging a dataset into a a proxy for life and relationships is a massive challenge.

Timeline takes a very good step towards a human interface. Open Graph asks developers to carefully specify the nouns and verbs of their actions so Facebook can present an update as a story. “Drew is listening to R.E.M” is much more natural than “Drew shared a link: R.E.M.” Additionally, these stories aren’t captured on a wall (which has no pre-Facebook counterpart), they’re captured on a timeline (which has many pre-Facebook counterparts4). Timeline also takes a solid step towards form-agnostic design. Its two-column interface suggests usage on a tablet or browser, and a condensed one-column view on a smartphone.

Timeline isn’t perfect, but it’s an amazing accomplishment. Exploring your life with the year navigation controls is an emotional, reflective experience. For the first time in years, Timeline made me wish I had captured more stories with Facebook. And I’m sure that’s exactly Facebook’s intent.


  1. My thoughts concerning what Timeline means for Facebook’s social media model can be found here

  2. According to the Insights API, the base unit of a personal event is a ‘story’. 

  3. My favorite example of this trope is the telephone, which functionally began as the telegraph. Using Morse Code, the telegraph was unusable by the mass public without the aide of an expert. As the telegraph gained in poplarity, telegraph machines were invented with more human interfaces in an attempt to democratize the technology. Despite these efforts, mass electronic communication didn’t take off among the general public until the introduction of the telephone, which refactored the mode of dialogue back into the pre-telegraph ‘conversation’. Even now, we’re still adjusting this interface towards a point where the interface itself isn’t perceptable: with cellphones’ built-in address books, we no longer call numbers. Now we call people, much like our children will only play songs. 

  4. Photoalbums, wall charts that track children’s height, yearbooks (Facebook’s initial, successful metaphor), journals, scrapbooks… 

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