Technology

What's next on Facebook's timeline

Mark Zuckerberg
Image caption Mark Zuckerberg - a man with a plan?

Facebook promised a summer of announcements, and we've certainly had that.

The press releases and corporate blog postings have been flowing out of Palo Alto faster than the site's newly introduced "ticker".

Automatic friend grouping, updated privacy controls, music, movie and news integration, Timeline and the aforementioned ticker have all transformed the look of the social network.

Some users have reacted with anger, demanding a return to the "old" Facebook. Many are simply befuddled - struggling to make sense of the whirring, buzzing modules that have suddenly appeared in their electronic lives.

But most Facebook members, it seems, are now resigned to its semi-regular updates, knowing that they will eventually adjust to them, just as when supermarkets move the location of their pickled onions for the umpteenth time.

Such are the consequences of being engaged in an ongoing experiment. In a world where we seek finished, perfected products with a money-back guarantee, signing-up to a work in progress can feel unsettling.

That is not to excuse Facebook for getting it wrong sometimes - spectacularly so on occasion. The fiasco of the invasive Beacon advertising product was widely seen as a low point. Its habit of rolling out updates that might impact privacy without fair warning continued a little longer.

Image caption Profile pages are replaced by a more visual timeline of a user's major life events

But the mis-steps are more often a failure of execution than a lack of vision. Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly shows - with growing confidence - that he has a plan for his site. It is probably wise not to confuse occasional ham-fistedness with a lack of direction.

Mr Zuckerburg has been slowly but surely building the concept of the social graph; the idea that not only every individual, but every location, item and action can be connected online.

Its first iteration, outlined at the 2007 f8 developers conference, linked people, applications and activities inside Facebook. The next stage - the open graph - saw it reaching out into the wider web, chronicling activities on external websites.

And now we see its latest incarnation. Gone is the "hassle" of clicking buttons and explicitly instructing Facebook to announce what we are doing on Spotify or reading on the Guardian website. Before you can think it, your current activity will automatically be whistling through the ticker.

Users who haven't done so already will need to intimately acquaint themselves with the site's privacy settings or risk repeated automated faux pas.

There are worse things that can happen than your friends finding out that you listened to Total Eclipse of the Heart 12 times in a row, but we will doubtless hear of greater unintended disasters.

Is it fair to expose users to such risks?

There are rights and responsibilities in any society, and the push-pull between Facebook and its members over privacy will continue as long as the site exists.

Image caption Twitter and Google+ both have plenty to hold the attention

For every indiscretion, and possibly even tragedy, the question will be asked "Did Facebook do enough to keep them safe?" and "Did the user take responsibility for their own actions?"

But innovation is inevitable. Not least because Facebook has hungry rivals chomping at its heels.

Yet it is simplistic to characterise the site's every move as a response to Google+ or Twitter. Not everything the BBC does is a reaction to Sky, but the odd thing might be.

It is true that the ticker looks a lot like Twitter, as does the subscription system. But then Twitter looks a bit like an RSS feed, which resembles a journalist's newswire system, which has elements of the stock ticker about it.

In fact, the technological mechanism is a red herring. What Facebook is learning, is what any TV executive will tell you - if you are unlucky enough to be stuck talking to one at a party - that "content is king".

Twitter is a virtual blizzard of opinion - from Joey Barton's pop philosophy to Kim Kardashian's perpetual exclamation fest!! Google+ has become the default hangout for tech geek information exchange, with Robert Scoble and Jeff Jarvis presiding over matters. Both feel like an exciting place to be.

By comparison, Facebook has seemed a little quiet of late. "David is at Pret A Manger", I see.

Hence Mr Zuckerberg's plan to make it the hub of all consumption. In his vision, the site will become the Grand Central Station on everyone's daily commute.

The plan: if you care at all about broadening your horizons - seeing a new video, hearing a new song - this is the place to be.

No longer are the Wall, photos and poking enough. You need to leverage the might of news publishers, TV, cinema, anything and everything that is of interest.

That is what will bring in the crowds and keep people engaging with Facebook.

Ironically, it is the lesson that every wealthy young geek learns the hard way.

Just because you have a big house and maybe even a swimming pool, doesn't mean anyone is going to come to your party. But if you can get the cool kids to come along, everyone else will be beating a path to your door.

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