– by Jake Ten Pas
These are the things the new Facebook Timeline profile format tells me, and perhaps in the bigger scheme of things, these are the most important things for me to know about each person. I sure hope so, because I’m not going to glean much else from the image-heavy, text-poor space “above the fold.”
If the phrase “above the fold” means nothing to you, then chances are you love the new profile format. You didn’t grow up reading newspapers, and it could be that your interest in words goes no further than the often unpunctuated, under (or OVER) capitalized, fact-check-free asides that pass for communication these days.
Just in case your curiosity runs deeper, “above the fold” refers to the space above the crease in a newspaper. It’s the real estate that peeps through the window in the newspaper box you might still occasionally see on the sidewalk downtown. It’s where the most important, or at least most eye-catching, stories and photos run. In my former life as a copy editor/page designer, I was often committed to getting as many stories as I could above the fold.
Facebook used to be committed to this idea, as well. If not stories, it at least prioritized interactivity and the sharing of information. At the top of my page were (are, depending on whether you read this before or after my transition to the new format) my vital stats: My name, birthday, where I live, where I went to school, marital status, etc. There were a number of photos, often a status update and some recent activity. In other words, there were numerous ways to engage.
Now, when I go to the page of one of my coworkers listed above, I’m slapped in the face with one gigantic photo. This slap is followed by quick jab in the eye with another smaller photo and, eventually, actual info about the person and ways to interact with her or him. Granted, I often work on a small laptop, and I can see twice as much information on Pat’s gigantic monitor, but the message remains the same. Image has superseded the written or typed word as the communicator of choice as far as Facebook is concerned.
Whether or not this is another step toward global illiteracy remains to be seen, but it is, at the very least, sad. Considering that more people now check Facebook on a daily basis than read a newspaper, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in drawing these kinds of comparisons.
Photos are more universally accessible. I get that. Anybody can grab a camera or digital phone and snap a picture. It takes practice to put words together in an order that makes sense and transmits an idea, information or feelings to others. People can take just about anything away from an image. Maybe that means that images allow the consumer more freedom of interpretation, and words direct us to specific conclusions. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but there’s certainly an argument to be made.
Personally, I like to communicate more with words than images. I love words, and I feel as comfortable working with them as an artist might with paint or Photoshop. As a movie lover, I understand the power of the image, and I understand the skill it takes to produce an image that is truly powerful. A great photo can tell a story as well as any combination of words. Just not in my hands.
This isn’t about that. It’s about Facebook tipping the scales of word-image equality. From my perspective, the social media behemoth is simply holding the mirror up to society. Most people seem less concerned with speaking or writing in either a proper or effective manner than they once were. People would rather speak with images, and Facebook is only too happy to enable that inclination. Also enabled are the rest of us, who’ve convinced ourselves that we don’t have time to read, but only to glance at a photo, and preferably one unburdened by caption.
Facebook devoured MySpace for a number of reasons, but one that’s always struck me was its streamlined, easy-to-read format. By not allowing an overabundance of customization, they created a user experience that was clean and consistent. Whether folks wanted to share with words or images, their profile and, more recently, the news feed, maintained an uncluttered flow.
Now, not only has written communication been devalued, but by allowing increased customization of the profile space, Facebook has allowed user profiles to look almost as messy and impenetrable as MySpace pages once looked. Granted, there are no fit-inducing flashing widgets yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. In this online version of scrapbooking, some new visual corollary to the triple exclamation mark must re-emerge.
It’s not that I don’t get the Timeline metaphor. It’s that Facebook’s execution of this metaphor is shoddy at best. It looks less like a timeline than a dreamboard in a teenager’s bedroom.
Every time Facebook unleashes a new iteration on its users, there is backlash, and I’ve no doubt that some of you with the attention span to read this far are accusing me of simply contributing to the most recent wave. Could be. I simply ask that you consider that this new format represents a bigger change than most, and what that change says about how Facebook, and those of us who use it, view the shape of communication to come.
Meanwhile, I’ll be contemplating how to fit all these ideas into a single image that can be rapidly consumed by those who don’t have time or inclination to read below the fold.