The new Facebook timeline: it’s gorgeous, it’s interesting, it’s… bound to fail. Why? Because it’s about Facebook listening at its users, not listening to them.
For a long time, Facebook has been barraged with requests for privacy controls. If you’ve ever been involved in product design, you’ve heard requests like these too: clear, concrete feature requests from users who know your product well and who are valuable customers for you. You must always ignore these reasonable, specific, actionable requests.
I call them “coffeepot toothbrush” requests, as in “please put a toothbrush charger on my coffeepot, so that I can do all of my morning stuff at once.” Seems reasonable, right? Except the user has misdiagnosed themselves: they think they’re trying to “do their morning stuff.” I’d say they’re trying to “get clean, so that they can be seen by other people” and also “get energy, so that they can drive to work and then do work.” The feelings that are associated with “clean” and with “energy” are completely opposite here: fresh peppermint toothpaste, and then smoky, earthy, hot coffee: the one will ruin the other.
It’s not that the two needs are unrelated — they are related, and that’s why they’ve been conflated. They’re just necessarily separated, because of their context. Facebook has heard a lot about the need for privacy controls; it also has an internal vision of Facebook truly being someone’s data manifestation of their life. These appear related, but, again, have different contexts.
So Facebook has misdiagnosed the cause of user requests: users don’t want privacy controls — although it’s reasonable Facebook would try to supply them, since what Facebook can bring is controls. Users want privacy because the various people they know need context. Some people have context for what they see, some don’t; and context is a big, difficult thing to provide.
Context isn’t a category, it’s not a control, it’s not even privacy — it’s related information. If you keep seeing pictures of me drinking booze on Facebook, you might think: oh, he’s an alcoholic! Let’s not hire him. Or, if you spoke to me that week, you might know: oh, he went to a single-malt scotch tasting, because he occasionally enjoys one single glass of scotch in the evening! It’s hard to know, if you haven’t spoken to me lately.
Privacy controls are a simple, clear, specific, actionable replacement for context: with a privacy control, I can simply hide the photos of me at the tasting so that I don’t have to explain to you whether or not I’m a drunk who’ll pass out on my desk at work. That’s a lot easier than showing you a long history of me not drinking too much and enjoying a scotch now and then! Privacy controls are Facebook’s coffeepot toothbrush.
And, when you match that coffeepot toothbrush with your wider vision that you can manifest someone’s life in data, well, you confuse yourself with LinkedIn. And then you create the Facebook Timeline.