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Are Facebook users really in a panic about Timeline?

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By Cameron Clarke, Editor

February 1, 2012 | 5 min read

Timeline, the new look for people's Facebook profile pages “which exposes their entire history on the site”, as the Daily Mail melodramatically put it, is becoming mandatory.

And many Facebook users aren’t happy about it, apparently.

A poll of 4000 of them by the Naked Security blog found that 51% were worried about Timeline.

Only 8% said they like it and a further 8% chose the backhanded endorsement: “I guess I’ll get used to it”. The remainder ticked the box saying they don’t know why they are still on Facebook.

US blogger Jill Kennedy, a former media analyst for a major Wall Street investment bank, has warned Facebook “not to fuck your users”. In a tongue-in-cheek blog post she wrote that the site’s users could grow exhausted “by the daily changes to their profiles” and begin to hate Facebook in their droves.

So as Facebook prepares for its lucrative IPO this week (the company has been valued at anywhere up to $100 billion) could it really be about to alienate a huge chunk of its users and in turn harm its own value?

“I think this is no more than a mild hiccup, frankly,” says Ian Maude, an online media analyst at Enders and a former VP at AOL Europe.

“I think some of the reaction is fair enough, and I’m not underestimating that or saying that Facebook won’t have to react to it, but past mistakes have shown Facebook’s willingness to go back to the drawing board and rethink and I’m sure if the user reaction is particularly vociferous or widely held that’s exactly what it will do.”

Maude does not believe that Timeline will have “any significant impact” on Facebook’s incredible rise in popularity.

He says, “This year it is going to get pretty close to a billion users worldwide. That’s an insane number. The only other company that has that kind of reach is Google.

“And while it continues to grow, while more and more people flock to the service and spend more time using it, then advertisers are going to continue to do the same. That’s really what it’s about: how much revenue it is generating and its growth potential. I don’t think really this is going to have much impact on that.”

Jessica Knowlton Bell, an email and social marketing manager at Peach Digital, agrees that Facebook “isn’t going anywhere, even with this Timeline”.

She tells The Drum, “It may upset a few users, but Facebook regenerates itself every four or five years with a new layout. When the Wall started, and the News Feed started, and the Ticker started on the right hand side, there was outcry yet the number of Facebook users just keeps going up and up.”

Knowlton Bell describes Timeline as a sign that Facebook is trying to give users their own personal website within the network of Facebook. “Aesthetically that’s pretty clear with the banner image at the top and profile picture and progression of your life.

“Whereas some of the privacy settings may not have actually changed, the Facebook Timeline has in my opinion broadened how other users can see you. It might make users feel more open in the cyber world. Even if their privacy settings haven’t changed they still feel like their lives are more visible online, which I think they are.”

Paul Fabretti, digital director at PR agency Brazen, says people’s awareness of how their information is being shared and used, and their rights over this information, will present a challenge for sites such as Facebook this year.

He says, “I think Facebook, particularly, has had a creatively-led approach to legal aspects of its platform - a case of asking for forgiveness rather than permission.

“This has come about because the legal guidance around this kind of usage of data has so often lagged behind. I think that this year there will be much greater clarity over how this data can be used within the confines of existing laws.”

It is not just Facebook that is having to deal with privacy issues. Its major rival Twitter has hit the headlines this week for revealing plans to restrict access to unlawful tweets on a country-by-country basis.

This would prevent a repeat of the super injunction fiasco which saw footballer Ryan Giggs outed on the site as a love cheat but newspapers unable to report his identity.

“Twitter is in a difficult situation in that it clearly wants to be seen to be not in breach of the law in certain countries which frankly, if you are running a business, you could completely sympathise with,” Maude says.

He adds: “On the other hand Twitter has been seen as the beacon of free speech and appears to have done a lot of public good by providing a platform for people to communicate and broadcast messages, particularly in countries where that is difficult through traditional means.

“I think it has done some reputational damage. But I don’t think it’s really clear how this plays out. It depends whether the lawyers or the believers in free speech get the upper hand.”

How this particular timeline plays out remains to be seen.

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