You might forget insignificant details, but Facebook never will

Sat, Jan 28, 2012, 00:00

HAS A COMPANY ever had as far a reach into private lives as Facebook? Google is an obvious answer, but it lags in the coherence and depth of its knowledge. People use Google as a way of making their lives easier. They live those lives through Facebook.

Facebook claims 800 million active users. It is not yet eight years old. The closest parallels in the breadth of its information on individuals is with noncorporate entities: the intelligence agencies of empires; the Catholic Church. The church isn’t a glib comparison, but I’ll still offer this glib observation: it too contains all the records of members’ key moments: baptism, weddings, funerals. And once you’re in . . .

Ireland, as of April last year, had 1.5 million active users of Facebook. Even allowing for doubling up, and clubs or companies, that figure would have been inconceivable a decade ago.

This week Facebook confirmed it is opening up its users’ lives through its new Timeline. Previously an option, this will be a mandatory chronology of a Facebook user’s life online – or, at least, the version they have put forward – and will replace the current profile page. From here on, that notion of you living your life online will be presented back to you in literal form.

But whatever about your life, it also suggests Facebook is confident that it might be a companion through entire lives. It is only a child, but here is its intent to grow old with you. Given the turnover in the early years of social networking – Bebo, Friendster, Friends Reunited and MySpace have all shone but then faded – it would be natural to assume that Facebook will one day begin an irrevocable slide towards irrelevance.

But if Google’s underwhelming effort to muscle in on social networking has shown anything, it’s that Facebook has become an unshakeable part of daily life for many people.

In the early days of social networking, only a few years ago, privacy controversies about the likes of Bebo were based entirely on the popular idea that such sites would be for teenagers, who needed to be protected.

But Facebook’s greatest victory has been over demographics. At the start, it aimed at twenty-somethings and then it sucked in users from either side. Three generations of the same family can now be on Facebook.

Facebook’s default position is that you want the world to see what you’re up to. If you don’t, you need to hack away at the privacy options until only your dearest friends – and every half-baked acquaintance you reluctantly agree to friend – can see them. And even then you’ll find occasionally that your information has escaped through a gap somewhere, unchecked because a box wasn’t unticked.

It is also maddening to use. There is the lack of subtlety in the Like button. You can’t edit posts – you have to delete them and start again. Your friends’ posts drizzle down your page in no order. And it looks terrible: almost archaic in modern terms.

And yet its success comes partly from how it constantly bamboozles and challenges its users with tampering, experimenting, dipping toes in the water.

There is always something going on with it, minor or major, and always cause for griping or admiring. Facebook Timeline comes from that ethos, and was originally leaked, temporarily and supposedly accidentally, more than a year ago as Facebook Memories. It doesn’t just present the online life in handy chronological order: it is, as the original name suggested, a memoir.

And it is a reminder of how much information Facebook has about you. Where posts were once apparently lost, they are found and repackaged. Old relationships, jobs and nights out will come flooding back in high-resolution. Facebook is giving its users seven days to clean up their lives before their Timeline becomes visible. You have to opt out of your own embarrassment.

Google is also attempting to extend its reach, this week announcing it will group the knowledge of its various sites, such as YouTube and Gmail, so it can better target searches and ads – while encouraging people to give up more of themselves through Google+. But it has yet to succeed in sucking the life out of people in the manner of Facebook.

Meanwhile, the European Commission released its plans for greater privacy laws, among them a “right to be forgotten”, through which you will be able to ask that irrelevant information be deleted. Facebook has warned against privacy laws that, it claims, will choke innovation. But it has become successful because it has reacted to, and pushed, its users’ notions of where acceptable lines are drawn, and redrawn.

Facebook Timeline is the latest challenge. But while it may help us remember more, it also reminds us how little the web forgets.


shegarty@irishtimes.com

Twitter: @shanehegarty