Facebook and Time

Facebook took an interesting step Thursday against the cultural flow of the social graph as we know it. It has to do with our perception of time. The printed book has always subtly preferred the past. Books, once published, become relatively unchanging bouys in the river of time. And the most important ones stay right there where they were dropped, which is why we were always taught in school that the year and author are the two most important things to cite when writing our research paper.

However, digital information culture as we've known it so far doesn't work like this. Its time-orientation is toward the present: what is happening NOW. (Aside: It doesn't flow quite as fast as "live TV"--it's more viscous time syrup, with memes taking 24 hours to move to talking status, etc. More on this [pdf]). Searches give you a snapshot of what currently exists on the web, not what existed a five years ago. Aside from WayBackMachine, the web resists the "holding action" that defines print media.

This is why the 15th ed of the Chicago Manual of Style said that when you cite web pages in a research paper, you can stop putting "accessed on" in the citation. It's meaningless, they said. It's not likely that you can return to the website at that date. You can only access it as it is today.

So Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg introduced a new landmark feature for profiles called Timeline (watch the F8 keynote address). It tracks not only the years since you've been on Facebook, but lets you go fill in the gaps of your life, adding kid photos and important life events.

In some ways this adds an oddly historical view to an ahistorical world. For contrast, they've moved the live feed to the right of the screen: the perfect image of what is Now, with updates dropping off the cliff moments later.

But this is a digital take on a print orientation. I haven't seen the actual timeline, but it seems that you can add data all across the timeline at once--say, all the 3-mile runs I've taken in the last years. But if I change my mind, in 1-click, I can remove them all as well. Not just the ones in the future, but the ones in the past as well.

This is not the old naive historiography that sees past events as unchanging anchors to be uncovered, nor is it post-modern history that seeks to reveal the forgotten past voices crushed by power. It moves past both of these, to view of history as data layers to be added or removed at will. We modify history not because we seek alternate views or are coming closer to the truth, but simply because we must. In an infinite world of information, there are infinite ways to tell the story, and only some of the layers can float to the top.

How will digital natives write history? Mark Zuckerberg just helped shape that.