The timeline’s time has already come

Mike Elgan
15 February, 2012
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Facebook will soon foist its new Timeline feature on users as part of its plan to update its interface.

Dictionary.com defines a timeline as “a linear representation of important events in the order in which they occurred.” The key attributes of a timeline are linearity and chronology. Facebook’s Timeline is a brand name – and it’s somewhat misleading.

A Twitter feed is a timeline. Google+ streams are timelines. Blogs are timelines. In fact all major social networks, RSS feed readers, blogs and microblogs offer timelines – linear representations of chronologies – as the default view.

Facebook’s branded Timeline is different from those interfaces. Among the differences in Facebook’s Timeline are the size of the items and the fact that it has two columns rather than one. It scrolls all the way down to the beginning and has other visual and functional differences. Timeline de-emphasises the posts of other people in favor of a highlighted emphasis on one’s own activities. ‘Me Time’ would be a more accurate name than “Timeline.”

Facebook once did have a much more timeline-like interface. Back in 2009, it introduced ‘Facebook Lite,’ which was truly linear. Facebook originally rolled out Facebook Lite in India to serve the segment of that population with slow internet connections. However, people back home heard about it and decided they wanted it, so Facebook offered it as an option in the US.

But it didn’t last long. Without apps and pages, and with fewer and smaller ads, the Facebook Lite timeline wasn’t the cash-cow interface the company wanted. Either way, the ‘timeline’ idea is nothing unique to Facebook. What’s interesting is not that another social or content service is rolling out yet another variation on the timeline concept, but that products that never had timeline interfaces are getting them.

Newest search engine is a timeline

When you search for something on Google+, the default result is a timeline (as defined above).

Let’s say someone said something to you on Google+, but you don’t remember whether it was a comment on one of your posts, a comment on one of their posts, or a comment on somebody else’s post. On Google+, you just search for their name and your name and you get results that are a timeline of all places on the network where the two of you interacted, starting with the most recent interaction and going back in time to last summer when Google+ launched.

Reverse-chronological order is not the default on Google News – but it is an option – and it doesn’t exist on Google’s regular search tool. On Google+, it’s a revelation. Search becomes a timeline ‘stream’ for any topic, any person, any post type – for any anything.

Best of all, it’s ‘alive.’ When someone posts a new item that matches your search, all the results slide down and the newly posted item goes on top. So in that sense, it’s a living timeline.

Newest contact application is a timeline

The most recently announced contact application that I’m aware of is called Evernote Hello. It launched late last year and was updated this week.

Evernote Hello, which is an iOS app that works with Evernote, is a revolutionary new approach to interacting with your contacts. The idea is that when you meet someone, you take their picture.

That simple act brings several chunks of data into the contact: The person’s face, and both the time and the location of the meeting. If you meet several people, your contacts will forever link those people, which may later help jog your memory. You can also import old contacts from your iOS Contacts application, or dump Evernote Hello contacts into iOS Contacts.

Evernote Hello has a lot of great features. But the coolest thing is that the default interface is a timeline. The app obsesses over when you met each of your contacts. In one view, you’re given a timeline of faces. You simply scroll back in time through the faces until you recognize the person you’re looking for.

Search results show you hits in a timeline, too.

The timeline concept is a powerful one, not because it’s an advanced technology, but because it takes advantage of how the human mind works. People think in terms of linear chronology. And this is one of the reasons all these new blog and social approaches to ‘consuming’ information have become so popular in the past decade. People just like timelines.

It’s exciting to see this approach to interacting with information spill out of the blogs and social streams and into search and even contacts.

What other types of information can be displayed in a timeline? This is just the beginning. I think we’ll be seeing an increasing focus on presenting everything that can be presented in a linear, reverse-chronological order in a timeline.

It’s about time.

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