How the Atlantic created a personalized timeline of your life

The Atlantic's Life Timeline

How will history remember your lifetime? Drawing on its 160-year archives, the Atlantic has found a way to give each of its readers an answer to that question.

This week, the venerable magazine brand launched Life Timeline, an online experience that takes participants on a personalized tour through the political, pop-culture and social moments that shaped the world around them during the key milestones of their lives.

Put in your birthdate, and you’re given a tailored timeline featuring 10 to 13 historical events spanning your life so far, each correlating to an article from the Atlantic. For this writer, that meant being told, “Your life can be divided into two halves: before and after Wikipedia” and, “At 15 years old, you were part of the generation most shaped by 9/11.”

This timeline also – ominously – took a stab at the future: “By the time you turn 43, humanity’s water requirements will exceed its supplies by 40%.”

Matt Thompson, the Atlantic’s deputy editor, dreamt up the idea because he wanted to find a way to identify the event, or milestone, that marked the midway point in a person’s life.

And at odds with any suggestion the Atlantic might be a dusty old media operation given its own long history, Thompson and colleagues from design and product development teams fleshed out the project within a week using the ‘Sprint’ methodology (the principle of taking an idea to prototype in quick-fire fashion) popularized by Google.

“We created a prototype and by the end of the week we had the bones of what you see in the timeline,” Thompson told The Drum. (As the Atlantic’s creative director David Somerville explained in a Medium post, the sprint was not without its hurdles, and required a good deal of development time thereafter to get it to what you see today.)

Thompson said he knew the project had hit the mark when he showed it to a senior colleague: “The coming of age milestone for him was Ronald Reagan getting shot, and spontaneously as he was scrolling through it he just stopped and said, ‘And I remember exactly where I was when that happened’. That was exactly the type of resonance we wanted this to have.

“We felt like, if we do this right, it will pull people out of their days and give them an opportunity to reflect on their lives so far – what they’ve seen, what they’ve lived through, what they knew about – the big events that happened in history that they witnessed and that shaped them. But also some of the things that were happening even when they weren’t paying attention.”

A dilemma for Thompson’s team was deciding which events to include from the Atlantic’s enormous archive. “One of the biggest narrative challenges with telling a story like this that bends to each user that takes it is, how do you balance the dark with the light? We didn’t start you off with a massacre. You would get what should feel an appropriately weighty and an appropriately light tour through history that maps to some key moments in your life.” So harrowing milestones are balanced with levity – a humorous image showing what Hollywood thought teenagers looked like when you became one, for instance.

The experience may be individualized, but the ambition was always that users would want to share it, so personalized cards for Twitter and Facebook, encapsulating three milestones, are included at the end of every timeline. “Interestingly each of those three milestones inflects the other," Thompson said. "If that middle milestone is a tragedy that occurred around the time you turned 18, and then the last thing you see is 'you can divide my life at this point into two halves, before and after Google', I think my sense from what people are sharing is they read that last sentence differently depending on the middle sentence. Which is a really interesting meta-statement on how the way we tell our own stories shapes us.”

Life Timeline has already attracted the National Geographic as a launch sponsor, with each timeline containing two native integrations for its program: Origins: The Journey of Humankind. As well as being an enticing commercial prospect, the Atlantic also hopes that it will spur a new generation of readers to explore the significance of its journalism – through the prism of their own lives – as it celebrates its 160th birthday.

Thompson's hope is that everyone who runs the timeline will encounter an event or milestone they weren't aware of: "One of the things that we put some thought into was trying to pair those milestones, the events themselves, with coverage from the archive that broadens them, that shows why these events resonate through history. Right now, some folks who are in college are just at the beginning of understanding the Arab Spring and its reverberations through the world.

“For some of our younger colleagues, when we were testing this internally, that was one of the things that was gratifying – to see folks encounter events from right around the beginning of their lives, for example, that they may not have ever have gone back and registered as being notable, but all of a sudden they have a catalyst to learn about this moment that may have had a real impact for their lives.”

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