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Facebook changes were critical - future Mark Zuckerberg says so

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg smiles during an announcement Facebook headquarters Palo AlCalif. Wednesday July 6 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg smiles during an announcement at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., Wednesday, July 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

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Updated: November 10, 2011 5:27PM

It’s exciting, and unusual, when a company promises a major announcement and keeps its word.

Back in July, Facebook announced that they were enhancing their chat services by adding support for Skype. You can define that as simply “the next feature.” On Thursday, they announced something bigger and broader. What’s coming up isn’t merely Facebook’s newest features but instead is Facebook’s whole next step as a service and as a company.

They’re undertaking two ambitious and fundamental thematic shifts. To users, Facebook will no longer be a bench by the side of a river where they sit and watch an endless flow of ephemera float by and then disappear. Instead, the central concept of the overhauled Facebook will be your Timeline, which acts as an ongoing autobiography of the events in your life and your observations.

Your Facebook presence is now intended to be durable. In 2029, when your firstborn son’s holographic avatar is going off to lunar robot fighting school, you can rewind your Timeline to 2011 and show him what you were up to in the week before he was born.

(Very handy. “Why did you and my Mom break up so soon after I was born?” is historically a tough question to adequately answer. But one photo from Bonnaroo, taken a week before the delivery, can handle that instantly. Particularly if the same color of body paint can be spotted on the skin of some woman in a bikini and the lap of your cargo shorts.)

The Timeline instantly causes Facebook to focus on people. In its current incarnation, Facebook can’t really deliver an answer to the question “I wonder what my cousin in Germany’s been up to recently?” There’s just way too much crowd noise.

Facebook is also applying some new algorithmic voodoo to help identify significant events and activities and promote them within the feeds you see, so that when a cousin posts “Last week’s checkup marks five cancer-free years! I’m now considered Cured!” it’s made more prominent than when your nephew extends an invitation to share magical gold coins in some damn game or another.

The new focus on Timeline brings a long-overdue overhaul to Facebook’s interface. It looks like a modern, well-designed and largely clutter-free Wordpress or Tumblr blog. Historically, Facebook has always looked like what would happen if a goat ate a book about how to design websites in HTML 3.2 and then stepped on a land mine. At best, it’s looked like what would happen if the goat read the book and built up a successful design business, but then it stopped updating its skills when Bush took office.

Facebook’s second major thematic shift changes the whole nature of the service for developers. The scale and the scope of Facebook’s APIs have expanded monumentally. User timelines are now something akin to an iPad: it’s a blank canvas into which a developer is free to project almost any idea they can come up with.

We’re all familiar with the concept of Liking certain things we see online, or linking to videos, music tracks, and photos on a Facebook wall. You see them in your feed and the links take you away to Flickr, an external news site, or the content hosted on an external video or music site.

In The New Facebook, all of these content providers can create software that allows their stuff to be read, seen, played, and even interacted with, directly within Facebook. And the apps can go beyond simple click-to-play. You might notice that your friend is watching “Blade Runner” via Netflix streaming right now. You can then start watching the movie right within Facebook, jumping right in at the same shot your friend is seeing, and open a chat session so you can share the experience just as though the two of you were sharing a sofa.

It’s a huge opportunity for content services and there’s no mystery why my Inbox is flooded with press releases from companies that are getting on board quickly. Over the past couple of years, Facebook has evolved beyond the idea of a social networking service, It’s become a private version of the Internet, in which the things that haven’t been recommended by people you trust are almost completely invisible. It’s even the only version of the Internet that many people care about or even know of. Thus, content providers are grateful for the ability to project full, complete content into the Facebook experience. It could be hugely and lucratively disruptive to the current business of delivering paid and subscription content.

And it’s potentially a big boon for Facebook users. One of the iPad’s most popular news apps is something called FlipBoard. Once you give it your Facebook and Twitter IDs, it scours your friends’ posts for links and lays out the content into a supremely elegant magazine format. The result is a daily newspaper consisting entirely of articles and photos that your contacts thought were interesting enough to recommend. Facebook could wind up on that same track. Even if you’re not keen to post the details of your life, the New Facebook could be terrific just as a single webapp that keeps feeding you news, info, and entertainment that’s probably going to be of great interest to you.

Facebook unveiled all of this at their annual developer conference, during one of Mark Zuckerberg’s increasingly Steve Jobs-ian keynotes. One phrase kept popping up and they probably spent a lot of time and money developing it, so it seems like a shame not to reproduce it here: “Facebook used to be just about verbs. Now, it’s about any verb and any noun.” What they mean by that is that instead of just giving you a single mechanism for Liking things, the New Facebook will let you say “I’m listening to this Stacey Kent album on Spotify,” with the implication being that your friends can be listening to it too, either alongside you or on their own time.

The weary tech columnist must now rummage through his desk, find a well-worn rubber stamp and an ink pad, and stamp the phrase “Of course, it’s all just wishful thinking until it turns into a successful product with self-sustaining momentum” directly onto the screen of his MacBook. Done.

Oh, and . . .

(Nope, it’s not in that drawer.)

(Nor this one.)

(Oh, right: I think it’s still in my laptop bag. Aha!)

“Plus, this is Facebook we’re talking about. Did they think hard and long enough about the privacy implications of this new idea?”

It’s hard not to imagine the worst-case scenario. I take a three-mile constitutional at 1 PM. Along the way, I listen to Johnny Cash’s “American VI” and I stop off at the Panera on Signal Road for a cranberry bagel and a coffee, where I read my friend’s movie blog and post a comment. Every detail could wind up on my Timeline, thanks to these new enhanced Facebook integration features. My sneakers have Nike+ and the chip inside the left shoe lets an app on my phone report to how fast and how far I walked. I listened to the album on Spotify. Panera has a customer-loyalty program, and maybe at some point they added a feature to automatically Facebook my activities and I didn’t notice that I’d been automatically opted-in. My friend’s blog is Facebook-aware and assumes that I want my Facebook friends to read what I post on other services.

Even if you’re aware of all of these features that might have been added to the services, the New Facebook makes your activities easy to spot. “Tell me about all of the places that Andy visited during these two weeks in October of 2011” takes on a new significance when it’s 2014 and someone -- or the lawyer of someone who’s certain that I ripped off the idea for a column on WifBan network routers from one of his unsold screenplays -- is desperately trying to make two plus two equal five.

Nuts. Yes, if Facebook runs true to form, there’ll be lots of problems that won’t be fixed until enough people raise a big enough stink. And then, the only thing we’ll have to worry about is how all of this new information we’re automatically handing off to Facebook will be used to monetize and market us.

Nonetheless, Facebook’s fall collection is a confident step forward and probably a shrewd one. Among multi-billion-dollar tech titans, Facebook has had a curious and unique problem: they’re making massive cabbage but they don’t actually have a product that locks in their customers and which the company can control.

If you want to use a Mac or an iPad, you have to buy Apple hardware running Apple’s OS and software that Apple has approved and which Apple gets a 30% cut from; when you buy music and other content, buying it from Apple is the easiest path. Google has set itself up so that untold billions of people will continue to make money for the company so long as people continue to use the Internet.

Facebook’s currency is its users. It posts some impressive stats. During the keynote, Zuckerberg boasted that half a billion users logged into Facebook in 24 hours. Another stat, courtesy of photosharing site 4% of all photos ever taken are hosted on Facebook. That’s exactly the sort of statistic that urges me to search for an “Edit This Page” link so I can add in the phrase “[citation needed]” But even if it’s hokum, the fact that you could make such a claim about Facebook and hope to get away with it says all you need to know about the company’s scale.

Its users don’t care about those 500,000,000 people, however. To each individual, Facebook cares about the 500 they’re mildly interested in and the 60 close friends and family members that they actually care about. If a new service were able to articulate Facebooks’ features in a way that was far more accessible and relevant to enough of those 60 people, they’d all move away from Facebook pretty damn quick. Friendster got killed by MySpace, and then MySpace got Facebooked.

Facebook would have been vulnerable to a major verbing of their own if they didn’t come up with a plan to make the service relevant beyond its original 2006 mandate. They certainly weren’t in any kind of near-term danger . . . but mightier companies have fallen.

After watching the keynote, trying out the new interface, and talking to a batch of developers, it’s easy for me to imagine a dramatic scene from April or May of this year. Employees working at the Facebook campus were distracted by the sound of a tremendous thunderclap in the middle of a clear-blue day, followed immediately by the screeching of tires. They looked out into the parking lot to see two parallel lines of fire that end in an immense cloud of impenetrable white smoke.

It dissipates to reveal Doc Brown’s Delorean, from which a haunted and frantic-looking 40-year-old Mark Zuckerberg emerges and then races into the building, clutching two items in a vice-like grip.

He bursts into his 27-year-old self’s office and slams two things down on his desk before the young man can offer any protest. The first is a detailed, multiyear plan for refocusing the company. The second is a contract -- printed and signed on a flexible sheet of full-color 1600-dpi electronic paper -- indicating that a week earlier in the year 2024, he had agreed to sell what was left of Facebook to the 7-11 Corporation for what he was able to get for it: 140,000 Yuan and three years’ worth of Big Gulps.

The artwork on Future Zuckerberg’s left arm convinced Young Zuckerberg that he was indeed the real deal, and that his girlfriend was absolutely right when she forbade him to get the full-sleeve “Game Of Thrones” tattoo that he’d fantasized aloud about.

The objects on the desk convinced him to cancel all of his appointments for the rest of the week.

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