Facebook, Timeline and the power of the past

Facebook’s Timeline, a re-imagined profile page that captures the history of a user, was the most visually stunning announcement today at the f8 conference. But the new initiative is more than just a design flourish. It’s a bigger push by Facebook to mine the opportunity in the past, giving people a lasting resource and digital diary from all their activities.

This is an opportunity that others having been looking to exploit including such services as Momento, Memolane and Proust (s iaci), which help create digital timelines and personal journals based on data contributed by the user and pulled from various online sources. Google (s goog) has started pushing this message home with its “Dear Sophie” commercial, in which a father documents the growth of his daughter by sending her multimedia e-mails of her. And Foursquare has been talking up this angle recently with its new lists functions, which can organize past places, and the new event check-ins, which help people document what they did when they checked-into locations.

The power of the past

The past is increasingly attractive because of the growing amount of things we do online — all this data exhaust we create. As time goes on, there’s a lot that can be done with it, and it has value when it’s aggregated and analyzed. That’s the premise behind more services like RunKeeper’s Health Graph API, which organizes a user’s health and wellness activities and let’s people see how they’re doing over time. As we look at all this information, it can be good for not just preserving memories or helping us understand each other better, but for self-improvement and awareness. We are slowly moving toward a world where everything is being documented by sensors and the next step is to organize and analyze it all, to produce what some call the quantified self.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that Facebook has moved to create a sort of automatic biography for users based on their Facebook lives that they can augment and add to. The site is home to a wealth of personal data that collectively tells a rich story about our lives yet much of it gets lost and has no lasting value to us. By creating a tool to better capture, preserve and visualize it all, Facebook becomes more than a time-killing social network, it becomes the holder of our past.

What Facebook has to gain

Now Facebook isn’t doing this just to help us cherish our memories. The more data it has and the more it understands what has emotional meaning to us, the better it can target us with ads. By letting us preserve the things, activities and apps that matter to us, it gives Facebook an even better way to tailor ads that demand a higher rate from advertisers.

“Our primary business model and it always will be, is advertising,” says Dan Rose, Facebook’s VP of Platforms and Partnerships told Wired’s Steven Levy. “Our platform makes Facebook more interesting so people spend more time on it, because I’m learning about my friends and I’m sharing things about myself and I’m discovering new things. And it also makes it possible for us to put an ad in front of you that’s likely to be interesting to you.”

But Timelines can also be an opportunity to create recommendation tools for users to suggest products they might like based on their tastes and interests. Also, creating more engaging profile pages increases the stickiness of the site and how much time people spend on Facebook.

Perhaps most fundamentally for Facebook, Timeline will give people a new reason to go into oversharing mode. By providing people a way to come back to old entries and gain insights from them, users better see the value of sharing — and the cycle is perpetuated. Maybe you’re nervous about connecting your Spotify account to Facebook. But hey, wouldn’t it be great ten years from now to know what music you were obsessed with? Before, the incentive to share was more limited to how you could impress or communicate with friends in the present time. Photos and videos could obviously be revisited but many things were lost in the past. But Timeline means there can be a point to all of this sharing: a lasting repository that helps paint a picture of your life. And it shows that if you can organize and bring meaning to the past, it can help a company find success in the future.

Can Facebook be your digital scrapbook?

I’m not sure if everyone looks at Facebook as a digital journal and certainly, there is a creepiness factor to overcome in relying on one company to be the steward of your memories. But if Facebook can win over websites and apps to integrate with its updated Open Graph, which will preserve more user activities on Facebook, it will have an even more compelling argument for being a user’s scrapbook. I just wonder if you’ll be able to export any of these Timelines. That would be a great way to lock in users and keep people from defecting. It’s not exactly easy exporting your personal data but if Facebook makes it hard to move your memories somewhere else, it could have a powerful hold on people. And it would show again why owning the past could be even more useful for Facebook.

This move to organize past activity is increasingly what Facebook needs to do, I think, as it exploits the opportunities in its own timeline. It is further exploring the opportunities in the future, by helping people better discover what to do from their friends. And it’s really pushing to make the present more engaging, by encouraging real-time interactions, something Om has called the Alive Web. And it’s capitalizing on the past by making the all of this activity useful as a digital scrapbook. Facebook still has work to do; but today the company is showing that as far as the past goes, it’s got a good chance to be a winner.