How Facebook Timeline Works

Facebook Timeline business rollout
In conjunction with the Timeline rollout for personal pages, Facebook also introduced a new page layout for businesses.
Screencap by HowStuffWorks

Before you start eating a fancy meal, you snap a photo of it and upload it to Facebook. Your whereabouts are never, ever a mystery to your friends, thanks to Facebook's Check In button. You carefully organize your Facebook photo albums so memories are easy to find. In short, your life is an open (Face)book. But recently, everything changed -- you probably even posted about it. Facebook rolled out their new Timeline layout for users' personal pages.

When using your Facebook account, there are two basic options for what you're looking at: Either your personal page, or your news feed. Your personal page, which used to focus on your statuses, actions and pictures, once worked a bit like a blog: The most recent events were positioned at the top of the page, and older posts came after. It was static, and didn't change -- unlike the News Feed you probably see when you first log in, which is a dynamic, changing collection of clips from your friends' walls.


Beginning in January 2012, the service transitioned to something called Facebook Timeline, which presents that information in a more scattered, curated format. Think of it as an online magazine, focused on you, which attempts to "tell the story of your life" by clustering pictures, posts and comments from various Applications to provide snapshots of what you are, or were, doing at any given point in time.

While the service was described at first as optional -- Facebook prompted users to move to the new format if and when they felt comfortable -- it was only a few weeks before rumors that the Timeline would be become mandatory began to spread. As with any change in Facebook's services -- whether in layout, terms of service or privacy settings -- the uproar was immediate. While much of this resistance was simply discomfort at the idea of once again changing what the site looks like and how we use it, there were some legitimate concerns.


Areas of Concern

With Facebook Timeline, it's much more important than ever to be vigilant about posts or photos in which we've been tagged -- and it's contingent on us also to investigate our past posts and pictures. You can't be sure when an unwelcome surprise or embarassment will find its way onto your timeline, for all to see. While you may not have paid much attention to your privacy settings in the past, it's now very important to think about ways you can change those settings on individual posts -- or your profile overall -- in order to make sure that your Timeline represents you in a way you're comfortable with.

Don't stress out too much about imagining what may suddenly show up: You already know what's there, and being embarrassed or panicky does no good. However, it's important to be realistic about what information you want out there for people to see: The Facebook profile is, for most of us, the primary source and central repository of our personal information online -- meaning that it's up to us to stay in control of it.


Think about it this way: Just as there are conversations you would have with your friends that you wouldn't want to have with a parent or employer, there are probably photos and updates that you'd like to share with friends on Facebook, but might not want everyone you're connected with to have access to. Remembering that you're the one in control may help you to stay on top of decisions about who gets to see what.

Customizing Your Timeline and Privacy Settings

facebook help center
Facebook's help center features a video to help you learn about your privacy settings.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks

Timeline makes it easy to hide or delete specific posts and pictures from the timeline: Simply clicking on the item in question, even on a phone or tablet, brings up a menu for these options. But for those superusers and early adopters with long histories of Facebook use, doing this on a post-by-post basis can be prohibitively time-consuming.

If you're in doubt about exactly what personal or private information might be exposed, it's even more important to explore your account's privacy settings and understand the options. Facebook has always provided these options, and over time those privacy controls have only grown more sophisticated -- but many users have never bothered to learn the basics.


By sifting your connections, friends, family and business associates into separate groups, for example, you can make sure that closer acquaintances are privy to more personal or recreational posts, while a more formal profile can be seen by potential employers or casual acquaintances. You can define these settings easily on individual posts and tagged photos alike -- or change the overall settings in your account with a single click.

Likewise, you're in control of the applications that you use with Facebook, and the way they publish information. By reading the small print that pops up when you click on a third-party app, you can be sure you're not sharing anything you don't want people to know. A big part of the push toward Timeline is about integrating other apps and services -- like Spotify, Hulu or Netflix -- in order to share the music, TV and movies that you enjoy with others. If you don't necessarily want those things broadcast on your Timeline, you can simply adjust the privacy settings for the given app.


Other Changes to the Facebook Landscape

It's been said that every social network eventually falls to advertisers and businesses looking to use the Web for free advertising, which becomes spam, which leads to the graveyard. While MySpace has survived, for now, based on its appeal to small bands and individual musicians, the same strategy probably wouldn't work for Facebook.

Before Timeline, businesses and brands were able to establish a Facebook presence (see How To Make A Fan Page On Facebook) with a minimum of fuss, using the "Like" button and other shiny new tricks to establish relationships with their fans and users.


But like any social network, it's important for Facebook to make money from advertisers and businesses in order to keep offering us their free services. So one way Timeline is changing that part of their operations, though it may not be immediately apparent, is by forcing businesses to establish this presence in a more official way. Timeline cover photos -- that's the big splash page you see at the top of your page now -- can't contain certain sales language or "Like" gates anymore, and the focus for businesses' Timelines becomes the same as with any other user: an ongoing story about what that business is doing, where they are now and where they have been.

While the era of free and easy click traffic for pages like this is over, Facebook's new strategy actually helps businesses do what they've been claiming to do all along: build relationships with the consumer, rather than simply advertising to them under the guise of social networking. Being able to explore a company's images, successes and history -- the same way you would a new friend or colleague -- promotes that kind of social interaction with brands at the same time that it makes more money for Facebook, which has defined certain traffic and click-through rules to take back some of the revenue they've generated free for these businesses in the past.


Living With Timeline

facebook "share your story" pitch for timeline
Facebook's strategy for getting users on board with the Timeline layout is to pitch it as an opportunity to "tell your story."
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks

By imagining your Facebook Timeline as a magazine or Web site all about you -- rather than a scrapbook, or your personal journal, as some of us did before the change, and probably still do -- you can see the best ways to customize that information flow for a given audience. As Facebook describes it, you're telling the story of your life online through pictures, status updates, even the songs that you listen to and shows you watch. Theoretically, that means understanding your friends, their interests and what they care about in a much more intuitive and comprehensive way.

Likewise, you have control over how these things appear. While the "stories" at first may seem random, you can simply make choices to show a given period in a more customized way than was possible before. A great new feature that only became available with Timeline is the ability to backdate items:


By simply hovering over an update in your timeline and clicking the pencil icon to edit the post, you can select the clock icon to reset the posts position on the timeline if you feel it should fall earlier or later. (A practical use of this feature is inserting photos of bygone vacation, for example.) A new category called Life Events -- weddings, births and a host of other customizable choices -- defines major life milestones to help you and your online contacts tell the years apart.

It's not just about the benefits or the drawbacks: It's about understanding Facebook's place in your world, in the social networks you are a part of, and about creating and maintaining a presence online. If you're worried about privacy concerns, adjust your usage and learn more about ways to protect that privacy. At the end of the day, Facebook is a free service that you use in whatever way you see fit. And like any electronic tool, it rewards your level of knowledge and engagement.

If you're overwhelmed by the idea of using all those fine-tuned privacy settings, or paranoid about the ways Facebook uses your information, you have two basic options. One, you can delete your profile and -- if you want -- just start over, with a bare bones account that only contains the things you feel like posting. Or, you can look at this as an opportunity for transparency. Depending on your job, family life and social situation, it's possible that you don't really have much to worry about. Is there anything that terrible already on your Timeline, really? Are there friends out there that you can't trust to keep your best interests at heart? If that's the case, your privacy problem may lie elsewhere.


The Bottom Line

It's easy to get upset about changes to Facebook, since most of us spend so much time browsing and using it. We get attached to the familiarity of it. So, whether you're a fan of changes Facebook rolls out or not, it might give you some peace of mind to think about the motivations behind those changes.

Some critics say that the pattern of Facebook offering "optional" services that eventually become mandatory makes it seem like the company is hapless, or cruel, as if a bait-and-switch of any kind were a rational way to treat your users. But if you consider the "optional" period as a beta test, you can see the wisdom in making changes like this in waves: If nobody had signed up for Timeline, or the reviews were uniformly terrible, we probably wouldn't be talking about Timeline now.


In the end, it may be best to consider all Facebook information public. With anyone else's profile, it's the natural assumption, but when it's our personal stuff that can sometimes get a little fuzzy. When posting words or pictures online, think about it in terms of your reputation -- the best representation of yourself. You're the only one in control of that.

Part of living in the Digital Age means coming to terms with the fact that nothing ever goes away: Nothing is ever lost. Nobody's forcing you to use Facebook, and if you don't want something posted, simply don't post it. Or, as grandmother used to say, "Never write down what you can say aloud, and never say out loud what you can say with a look." Why should the Web be any different?


Author's Note

As an online writer, I use Facebook both personally and professionally, so I'm interested in following the changes they make to see how they'll affect the way I work and socialize. I enjoyed learning about the details and history of Timeline for this article, and actually came away thinking it was a lot more interesting and useful than I'd previously thought. There's something intriguing about the clustered layout, and the idea of your life story being represented online, as a sort of curated profile presence. Most of all, I think staying aware and honest on the Internet is essential. For me, transparency and honesty are a huge part of keeping a clear mind, and online opportunities like this are a great reminder of that.

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Facebook's "About Timeline" FAQ


  • "Brands' 'free ride' on Facebook to end?". Clickthrough Marketing, Mar 2012. (Mar. 11, 2012)
  • Kupka, Anna. "Facebook Timeline now mandatory for everyone". Forbes, Jan 2012. (Mar. 11, 2012)
  • Londis, Dino. "Facebook's Timeline will soon be mandatory". Information Week, Jan 2012. (Mar. 11, 2012)
  • Waugh, Rob. "You Will Reveal Your Past!". Daily Mail, Jan 2012. (Mar. 11, 2012)