Facebook revamps profile with timeline concept

The company has also made it possible for media companies like Netflix to more tightly integrate their content with its site

Facebook has done an extreme makeover of its user profiles, redesigning the interface so that it's easy to surface not only recent updates but also years-old information, the company announced at its F8 developer conference on Thursday.

Facebook has also upgraded its application platform so that gaming and media companies can more tightly integrate their content and services with the social networking site.

The new profile design is called Timeline and features a variety of interface and functionality changes geared toward letting users tell the full story of their lives, instead of just their most recent activities, according to the company.

The Timeline will still feature recent updates, but it will also summarize past events and feature the most important ones in a single page people can scroll through.

The Timeline will also provide new interface controls to filter posts according to different criteria, such as seeing only photos or calling up a specific year.

"It has all your stories, all your apps and a new way to express who you are," said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a keynote speech that was webcast from San Francisco.

Now, in order to call up older posts in profiles, Facebook users have to click a button that expands the activity stream list, a poor user experience, Zuckerberg said.

Instead, Timeline is "the story of your life," he said. It will be available in a few weeks.

If the most recent version of the profile provides fodder for a 15-minute chat, Timeline offers enough information for an in-depth, hours-long conversation about a person's life, he said.

People will also be able to fill in the Timeline retroactively with old photos and place them in the appropriate chronological spot. Current privacy settings and controls will apply to the Timeline interface so people can establish who can see what.

Timeline will also feature a new Ticker section, where Facebook will put automatically generated notifications of user actions, such as when people "like" a webpage or establish new friend connections.

On a related announcement, Zuckerberg said those automated notifications will grow in scope, so that people can share what music they're listening to, what movies or TV shows they're watching and what news articles they're reading.

Through an upgrade to the application development platform, Facebook is making it possible for companies like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify and Yahoo to more tightly integrate their online services and content with the social networking site.

In various ways, Facebook members will be able to notify their friends automatically about activities on those four and dozens of other media sites, and their friends will be able to call up the songs, TV shows and other content right from within the Facebook interface.

The CEOs of Netflix and Spotify both took the stage and said that the Facebook integration will help their companies increase usage of their respective services, as well as benefit the content makers -- movie producers, recording artists and the like.

The platform upgrade will also allow for a more satisfying social gaming experience, in which sharing and interaction is smoother and reduces interruptions from automated prompts, according to Facebook.

With the new features and changes announced on Thursday, Facebook is looking to boost in the amount of sharing its users engage in, said industry analyst Greg Sterling from Sterling Market Intelligence.

"The new features are not radically new or different. The Timeline is an elegant presentation of your activities, while the social apps are an extension of what's existed," Sterling said in an interview.

If it accomplishes that goal, Facebook may end up dealing with a double-edged sword. On the positive side, users will benefit from more discovery of content, like TV shows and songs, but they may end up exposing a lot more data, leading to potential privacy concerns, Sterling said.

Sean Corcoran, a Forrester Research analyst, praises the new features, saying that they give Facebook a much stronger competitive position because they make Facebook the center of people's online lives.

"These changes not only help trump rival Google, but will open up new opportunities for marketers with new kinds of customer experiences, long term engagement, advertising, and customer intelligence," he wrote in a note e-mailed to journalists.

However, adoption of the new functionality will be slow due to "concerns around privacy and immaturity in how to do these things effectively," he wrote.

Facebook has been on a tear in the past several weeks, unveiling a series of upgrades and changes to its site in rapid succession, which some industry observers attribute to the competitive threat from the new Google+ social network.

After Google+ launched in limited trial in late June, Facebook launched video chat, improved its privacy controls and simplified the process for grouping friends into smaller groups, three areas in which Google+ claimed to offer a better experience.

Facebook also recently started letting members subscribe to each others' public posts without having to become formal friends, a move seen as a reaction to not only Google+ but also to Twitter's "follower" model of interaction.

Now, with the F8 conference announcements, it remains to be seen if Facebook is throwing too many changes at its users in a short time, which could lead to confusion, Sterling said.

"There have been a lot of things changing in a short amount of time, and that could be overwhelming for users," he said.

Facebook is by far the leading social networking site, with more than 750 million members. Google+, which just this week became available to anyone interested in signing up, is estimated to have about 25 million account holders.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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