Facebook’s Timeline and Its Impact on Narrative

The designers and developers at Facebook understand and acknowledge the importance of narrative. Recently, Facebook upgraded its layout to a timeline format. The timeline is a year-by-year guide to a Facebook user’s life and includes as much information as the user wants to share.

Our lives are not stories in and of themselves; they are stories because we weave experiences into a tight blanket that we wrap around ourselves to feel safe and retain sanity. Imagine how terrifying it would be to lose or never develop your sense of self because you could not reference the past or make connections with the present!

This week, I’m teaching my basic writing students the principles of narration and how to write narrative essays. Narrative – a sequence of events carefully chosen and ordered to prove a point – is the oldest and most basic way to tell a story. Traditional narrative follows a time order while nonlinear narrative does not. We are all familiar and comfortable with this mode of story telling, and we as listeners and readers have come to expect a beginning, middle, and end.

My students are mining their own lives for stories that they’re already comfortable telling friends and families. They, like many of us, are so used to telling stories that they rarely, unless asked to write a story, examine the mechanics of storytelling.

Concurrently, in my creative writing class, I’m teaching my students the basics of storytelling by looking at some of the most primitive forms of storytelling: fables, parables, and creation myths. Reviewing these simple stories reminds me that a story should be written for an intended audience and that it should have purpose and some sort of structure.

The designers and developers at Facebook understand and acknowledge the importance of narrative.¬†Recently, Facebook upgraded its layout to a timeline format. The timeline is a year-by-year guide to a Facebook user’s life and includes as much information as the user wants to share. By scrolling through the years, anyone can see a user’s visual story.¬†Want to remember how much you used to worry about midterm exams now that midterms seem like nothing compared to your current woes? Just click the year you started college. Curious about the years that your current crush spent in a relationship? Just browse the years until you find photos of him posing with his ex-girlfriend.

Most of us don’t use Facebook to shape and develop our identities, but I believe that Facebook is trying to be that reference point. What you share on Facebook is probably very different from what you share with yourself or with the people closest to you. The danger in trusting Facebook as our reference point for experience is that we may forget how to reflect on thoughts and ideas that should be processed privately.

For example, I’m going to ask my students to free-write for 10 minutes about the month of January and the greatest challenges they faced in the past 31 days. What is most worthy of reflection? What can they take from the month and apply to their lives? What have their learned about themselves, and how have they grown?

After completing the exercise, they should take their free-writing home to their personal computers and compare their writing to what they have shared and posted on their Facebook profiles. How much of what they wrote privately in their notebooks is reflected on their Facebook profiles? One year from now, when they are trying to remember how they’ve grown and how far they have come, will Facebook act as a reliable reference point? Or will the way they understand themselves be distorted by what they chose to share?

Based on how much time the student spends online and how much he/she shares, the experience will vary. However, I truly believe that – in one or two generations from now – everyone’s experience of social networking and sharing online will more or less be the same. How will those generations experience themselves, and how can we continue to emphasize the importance of narrative outside of Facebook’s artificial narrative?

(Photo by dtweney)

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