Be Prepared for Facebook Timeline (UPDATED)

This is a guest post by Kirby Plessas (@kirbstr), President and CEO of Plessas Experts Network, a consultancy that informs, trains, and researches for clients on internet technology, information extraction, security and worldwide internet usage. 

Just as users are getting settled into the new Facebook feed style that was released a few weeks ago, Facebook is prepping again for another major change.  I don’t purport to know all of the effects of the next set of changes, but at least three items have caught my attention.

First, is the shiny and pretty new timeline feature. I have to admit, it is going to make profile pages much more attractive. I have not switched to timeline early although I know that some friends have because I wanted to wait until the official switch so I can experience the changes with the masses and notice what is effecting them. This is also the reason why I don’t use any add-ons to adjust my Facebook view (although I know there are some great functional ones out there, such as Better Facebook or the Chrome extension that suppresses the new and annoying ticker). I like my Facebook raw and gritty, if you will.

But the beauty and the danger in the new Timeline feature is that it partially solves one of the major gaps in Facebook – search. Now, I am unsure that you will be able to search through time on a profile via keyword (as would ultimately be my preference), but you could rewind and fast-forward through someone’s account through their timeline and see what they had to say a year ago or more. While this might not seem to be a privacy issue (users put this information out there – they didn’t care then), it is because until now, profile visitors could only go back in time to a minor degree to see what was posted. People change their minds and opinions they may have had two years ago may no longer be valid or what seemed funny back then might not seem funny now.

Luckily, Facebook has already provided us with a privacy tool that will keep the history within your timeline private, however, it is pretty much napalm to everything in your account. If you take a look at your privacy settings, there is an option to “limit the audience for your past posts.” This allows you to retroactively reset the privacy setting for everything you have in your account up until now to your default setting. I’ve used it a few times to set everything to “friends only,” which wiped out the few public posts I had created, and it works like a charm. To block your timeline from being exploited, you could use that tool to set all past posts to “only me” and thus make them privately searchable but blocked even to friends. I’m going to do this… soon. But the side effect is that everything posted up through now will be effectively wiped out from any of my friends’ point of view. Anything I want them to see, I will have to find myself and manually redo the privacy settings so they can view it. I don’t guarantee this would be the case with photos as well (which is probably the main thing I would want my friends to see on my timeline), but I am guessing it is.

MAJOR EDIT: Turns out this is not a solution after all. While Facebook limits posts you made viewable to the public or friends of friends to a default “friends” setting, it won’t affect every post and you cannot set it to “Only Me.” As a result, you will have to go through and get rid of posts manually. Because Facebook doesn’t give you an easy way to do this until you activate Timeline, I am changing my stance on activating it early and suggest anyone who wants to know what it will do to their account before it is viewable by everyone, activate Timeline now.

Second, timeline will also prompt users into entering even more data about themselves, such as previous employment. This might be a counter against popular professional networking site, LinkedIn. If people move their resumes and CVs over to Facebook, they may no longer have a need for yet another social network. Keep your eyes open, you may see professional recommendations as a new feature eventually. In addition, it prompts users to select which of their Facebook friends worked or studied at the same places, effectively tagging this onto multiple people’s profiles and timelines all at once. I have required all tags to be approved by me before adding them to may account and I suggest you do the same so that your resume is not automatically filled out for you by well-meaning friends.

Last note on Timeline – I just came across this article that shows that Timeline might give away your real birthday (at least year) even if you marked it private. Heads up.

Second, is the new instant sharing innovation, a definite privacy issue. Like Timeline, this isn’t a big deal if you are paying attention, but there are so many people out there apparently not paying attention to even the most basic Facebook privacy changes. Coming soon, any Facebook App that you add could include the new automatic sharing option where instead of “liking” a web article, just that fact that you clicked on the link to read that article or watched a video would be broadcast across Facebook to your default privacy settings. Some might not care, but others may not want professional friends to know how much they read the gossip pages, others may not want their political preferences highlighted across Facebook, etc. There are quite a few people already concerned about this.

I have a solution (work around) for you that I will be employing myself. First, go through your applications and delete the ones you don’t recognize. I would only keep the ones actively in use. This could solve the problem entirely, but some apps you may not want drop. If you are actively using one that might expose your reading habits (which could be any), then move on to the next step.

Since I am going to keep using my favorite apps and some of those might employ this instant sharing, I am banishing Facebook to its own dedicated browser. I’ll probably use Opera. The key is to use a browser that is different enough from your commonly used browser so that they will not share cookies/logins. If you use Chrome, don’t use Flock (or Rockmelt?) as they are based on the same code and could share cookies. Same with different versions of Firefox. Choose a browser that you like but don’t often use and keep it strictly for Facebook use. I do need to highlight that you will need to log out of Facebook on your active browser and delete all cookies for this to work, a major side effect of which would be that you cannot then use Facebook as the login to other sites using that same browser. This could be a major detractor for some, as the Facebook login across multiple sites is a great convenience and in many cases more secure.

Third and last, there is also the controversy over Facebook tracking users even when logged out. I’m not surprised, but the uproar about it reminds me of the uproar over the iPhone GPS tracking issue, so I wonder if that will stop Facebook from extensive tracking for a while. To me, this is almost a non-issue since I now expect to be tracked by pretty much every website I visit whether I log in or not. I’m also being tracked by my browsers and search engines. Everyone wants to know where I’ve been, what I had for lunch and whether I prefer Pepsi or Coke. This is the way the internet pays for itself. The only thing that really bugs me about it is that it is very secretive. Many people I know are talking about tracking and its pros and cons but there are also many people who are uneducated about who tracks you, why they track you, and how to avoid being tracked when desired. To learn more about internet tracking, please check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Here are some relevant articles.

Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 conference announcing Facebook Timeline.

Photos: Roebot (timeline), Dtweney (Zuckerberg, F8)

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