Facebook Timeline Moves Closer to the 'Creepy Line'

Facebook's Timeline user interface is raising eyebrows and heart rates from media and pundits who fear the social network is becoming a little too revealing.

Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt took a lot of flak from the media for a comment he made at an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., last October.

Schmidt, responding to a question about the possibility of Google developing some kind of neurological implant, replied: "Google's policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it."

If that comment seemed sketchy then, it's downright damning now, taken out of context and repurposed by Google's detractors, as FairSearch.org did ahead of the Senate's antitrust hearing versus the company Sept. 21.

Google isn't the only one to toe the creepy line. Facebook, with its new Timeline user interface, has joined the creepy-line party. Timeline, which packages users' personal histories online on one easily accessible Web page to facilitate easier information sharing, is drawing creepy calls from media and industry pundits. It's a rabble rousing that hasn't been seen since Facebook's Beacon ad experiment, which ended in a lawsuit settlement.

Indeed, Echo co-founder Chris Saad was quick to point out: "Using all the bling of the Timeline, along with new messaging and a simple little opt-in toggle of 'add to my timeline' they managed to re-launch 'Beacon' without anyone noticing."

Yet people in the blogosphere did notice how up close and personal Facebook's Timeline gets. Facebook used to be about letting users easily share what's going on with them on a contemporary basis.

The social network's 800 million members assumed that when they logged in and began populating status updates, photos and videos it was from only that point going forward.

Timeline affords users the opportunity to catalog their life history, from birth to present day, in digital form and make it easily accessible to users' friends.

"People will be scared at first because they're going to say: 'Oh, my God, they're trying to track everything I do.'" Altimeter Group analyst Charlene Li told eWEEK. "People in the end are going to love it because it's going to make it so much easier to share info you want to share."

And Facebook will love this because it means it can better hone its social ad algorithms. But it's made some people uncomfortable.

Channel 4 News' Benjamin Cohen correctly noted:

"It seems like too much information about me for people to be able to discover. While it's been possible for people to access my photographs from years ago, in a sense they were out of context. Now you can see context because of the posts I made myself and those made by my friends on my wall. Once the service goes public, I'll be limiting access."

Ben Werdmuller, CTO for high-speed video transfer player Lakatoo, chimed in:

"It's a contextual identity: something you won't get from a real name, a passport, an ID card or even a DNA profile. Whereas previously profiles were a collection of hand-picked pieces of information coupled with some things you'd shared recently, now you'll see wedding photos, pictures of drunken nights on the town four years ago, and perhaps a status update you made when you were hurt and upset after something you've long forgotten that happened in 2006-mixed up with more professional status updates and links, of course."

And that's a major dilemma users are facing as Facebook prepares for its worldwide launch of Timeline. Users can control what they do now and act in a professional, appropriate manner.

But users can't change the past, which could make for some painful posts on the Website. Of course, Timeline offers granular privacy controls; users will have to scroll through their posts and manually hide or delete them one by one.

"On one level, it's brilliant," Werdmuller continued. "On another, it's undeniably, pervasively creepy, to a level we've hitherto been unprepared for in human society. These things are designed to be forgotten, but with the Facebook Timeline, much of your life is all but indelible, published front and center until you go through each item individually and hide or delete it."

As consumers, manual hiding or deletion are your options. Or, you can opt out of Facebook altogether, the digital social equivalent of falling on the sword, sayonara.

Search and publishing expert John Battelle had some advice for publishers or simply folks with brands they'd like to earn money from: Steer clear of Facebook and its Timeline, as the money Facebook makes from your data will not be passed along to you.

Battelle wrote: "Don't invest your time, or your narrative exertions, building your stories on top of the Facebook platform. Make them elsewhere, and then, sure, import them in if that's what works for you. But individual stories, and brand stories, should be born and nurtured out in the Independent Web."