Facebook Timeline Brings Order to Your Messy Existence

And I'm very afraid of it.

I do not like straight lines. I don’t like standing in them, I don’t like drawing them, and I certainly don’t like cutting in them. (You can imagine how I felt about kindergarten.) But you know what kinds of straight lines I do like? Timelines. I mean really, who doesn’t? Who among you didn’t just adore that page in your ninth-grade history book that finally, finally put the Chinese dynasties into some kind of logical, memorizable, reassuringly infographic-y order? Timelines make sense out of chaos; to look at a timeline is to see the calm and orderly progression of seemingly disparate yet ultimately interconnected events. So let me just state then, unequivocally and for the record, that I am deeply, deeply afraid of the Facebook Timeline.

Which is not to say that I don’t have one.

Oh, I held out for a while, sure. I was all “Profile 1.0” with the other stalwarts. But no one, and I mean no one, lasts for long once Mark Zuckerberg makes up his mind that things are going to change. If the curiosity born of subliminal peer pressure doesn’t get you, then what Facebook calls the “wide, open space” of the “cover photo,” yet another totemic banner for your online self, will. That or the eventual fact that becoming a Facebook user puts you at the mercy of a boy-man’s whim; when it comes to style, Facebook is a benevolent dictatorship, not a democracy. (Which is borderline ironic, really, considering that the most sweeping stylistic change I can remember before this timeline business consisted of the tearing down of “The Wall.”)

Everything I want to say about Facebook as a structuring aesthetic and model of interaction in our lives has already been said by author and deeply human human Zadie Smith, in her article for the New York Review of Books, “Generation Why?” Read it, please—it may seem like a review of the Social Network, and in some ways it is, but it’s more. In fact before I press on, I’d like to take, as my founding principle, this quote from that article:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.

That last emotion is the one I want to focus on here. Not so much my personal fear of the Timeline as the fear the Timeline was created to assuage, a primal human uncertainty that plagues us all: the fear that our lives are going nowhere. That events occur in random whorls and loops of time, leading to no logical conclusions, adhering to no comprehensible structure and ending in death, the only certainty.

The Timeline is Mark Zuckerberg’s most audacious attempt yet to create an online platform that structures our perceptions of existence.

It’s fair to say we may not be quite there yet. Timeline is still young, still developing. But already, the goal of the thing is abundantly clear. Watch the video Zuckerberg’s monolith released to introduce Timeline, in which a nerdy white Facebook employee man’s life literally unfolds before your eyes in a straight, calming series of photos, videos and “life events,” joined in progression by a thin, blue line. (“Blue,” Zadie Smith says, “because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind.”) Wacky shots of his four-eyed youth give way to wacky shots of his four-eyed high-school self. He cuts off the mullet; he find a nice white girl; he gets engaged to the nice white girl at a pretty spot somewhere; they have a nice white baby; the baby gets older; the proud Papa gets some stubble and lo, the boy is now a man. That’s the narrative here: That our lives will unfold, are in fact already unfolding, according to a clear, perceivable progression; that we are all living on Mark Zuckerberg’s timeline.

Narrative is a powerful thing, and linear narrative is the most powerful kind. I’m seeing it every day, every time I log on to the Internet world that makes so much more sense than my own: Friends are updating their “life events,” backdating their existences, filling in the gaps. “Graduated from college” or “Worked at Arby’s” might someday soon give way to “First tooth,” “Middle-school graduation,” “Had sex on prom night,” whatever. After all, as this Mashable post explains, “Timeline uses an algorithm to assess the most important moments of your life, which can then be edited to your satisfaction. Unwanted updates can be hidden from the Timeline.”

As with all elements of Facebook, the Timeline offers you “choice,” lets you “choose” the events in your life that truly merit “life event” status. This illusion of choice has always been Facebook’s most powerful asset. Spend enough time choosing your profile pic and music tastes and friends and anointing events in your life as significant and you might actually become convinced that you’re choosing to click that link and buy that American Apparel t-shirt—because, isn’t that so weird, you’d actually been wanting that t-shirt for weeks anyway, how convenient.

But it’s not the selling power of our personal histories, neatly and clearly and reassuringly presented in line and online, that truly worries me (though don’t get me wrong, it worries me a lot). No, what I’m deeply afraid of is the insidious power the Facebook interface commands to structure our perceptions; what I’m truly afraid of is that damned line. Because the fear I mentioned earlier? That fear is real. Real time, the kind you feel and see and smell and fully experience, doesn’t move in a calming progression; it glides in eddies and waves and circles, loops back on itself and lurches forward. It is uncertain and unknowable, and it’s scary as hell.

But the answer to life’s uncertainty should not be, cannot be Mark Zuckerberg’s. Because limiting our perception of time to a forward-moving linear arc of rising action, climax and denoument is limiting our existence to an Aristotelian plot narrative—an almost machismo-prescribed (though let’s not get into the gendered aspects of the linear conception of time, that’s a whole other discussion) Hollywood storyline, with all the key moments and endlessly recycled plot motifs intact. And if we allow one nerdy white man’s perception of the order of things to create our own, then we lose what makes us human and individual and free; we relinquish the right to live in this world on our own terms, on our own time, with our own rules and whims and gross feelings and disgusting mistakes and beautiful happenstances.

That’s why I’m afraid. That’s why you should be, too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go post this article on my Timeline.