Facebook Timeline and Privacy: What You Need to Know

As Facebook defines the future of its social network, it's going back to the past -- the past of its millions of users, that is.

Last week, Facebook made its new Timeline program available to all Facebook users for the first time. The program allows users to review everything they previously shared on Facebook and showcase the photos, events, likes, dislikes, and comments they think are most worth remembering.

In addition, users can add new information to their timeline to capture what happened in their lives before they joined Facebook as well as personal tidbits that they did not previously upload after signing up.

A Day in the Life

The program was first announced at the F8 Developer's Conference in September. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explained that Timeline would contain several new features that provide users with new ways to express themselves and share the most important stories defining their lives on a single page.

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The Timeline interface is the most radical change to Facebook thus far, and helps differentiate Facebook from other social networking programs that hope to compete with it, such as Google's (GOOG) Google+, which uses a standard format that displays the most recent profile changes first.

For example, Zuckerberg explained that the timeline at the bottom of the page would break down posts and other information uploaded onto Facebook in chronological order and would allow users to break down year and month.

Also, events in the timeline will be represented on a map sponsored by Bing, through Facebook's partnership with Microsoft (MSFT), allowing users to geographically represent the experiences highlighted on the page. And users can also display what they've been watching and reading through sharing applications sponsored by companies like Netflix (NFLX), Yahoo (YHOO), and News Corp (NWSA).

'Hey Everyone, Here's My Horrible Junior Prom Photo!'

Facebook designed the Timeline to be fully customizable. You can choose precisely what you'd like to make publicly viewable. If there's information you'd like only some of your friends to see, you can customize who sees each piece of information. The program also allows you to highlight specific events as more significant than others so they appear more prominently on the timeline.

However, because Facebook will eventually automatically convert all of its users' pages to the Timeline interface, this design change has raised many privacy concerns.

  • One issue is that Facebook's encouragement of customers to provide personal information to "fill out" their timeline allows Facebook to capture more data to better target its advertisements.

  • By providing incentives for users to give their date of birth and other information, some worry that Facebook is making users more vulnerable to identity theft.

  • One user complained that not everyone has the time to review everything they've every put on Facebook to determine what should be public or private.

Not all the reviews are negative, however. Some users like that the interface presents information more like a scrapbook, which highlights and prioritizes things that are more significant rather than focusing on whatever the user has updated most recently. This allows users to design their pages in a way that better expresses who they are, making it easier for people to get to know you in the virtual world.

Many Facebook users are complaining, and have threatened to close their accounts when they're automatically converted to Timeline. But these complaints arise every time Facebook makes any change, and the number of its users just keeps growing.

Meanwhile, as Facebook increases its ability to mine data from its users, the site will only become more attractive to advertisers who want to target their messages. And, ultimately, that's why Facebook is in business.

Jim Royal, Ph.D., owns shares of Microsoft. The Motley Fool owns shares of Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Netflix. Motley Fool newsletter services have also recommended creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft.