SAN JOSE, Calif.
Even before Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard to build Facebook in 2004, he and social studies major Sam Lessin would share long conversations about online self-expression and the future of exploring the past. "Mark and I had kind of an ongoing discussion for years about how you express someone's story," Lessin said in a recent interview at Facebook's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters. "We would talk about storytelling and profiles and a lot of these concepts about what it means to express yourself in a digital future, where you have an unlimited amount of data storage."
That on-again, off-again dialogue will soon result in what may be Facebook's most ambitious product launch ever — what the 800-million-member social network calls "Timeline." In limited release now, Timeline is kind of a cross between a digital scrapbook and a collaborative autobiography. Zuckerberg described it as "the story of your life" when he unveiled Timeline during his keynote address at Facebook's annual software developer conference in late September.
Lessin joined Facebook a year ago and later started working with another nonengineer, graphic designer Nicholas Felton, to form the core of the team that built Timeline. The group went through more than a dozen versions before choosing the form Facebook's users will see.
It is a highly visual product, featuring photographs and interactive maps plus text, intended to make social media a thing of the past as well as the present. It is collaborative because it includes things that friends post on their Walls, as well as a record of the applications they use, such as the songs they listen to on the music service Spotify.
"We're trying to make more than 750 million people's data look beautiful, and tell an interesting story to them and to their friends," said Felton, describing his aspirations for Timeline. Felton is co-founder with Ryan Case of Daytum, a startup Facebook bought in April that created tools to communicate personal statistics.
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Since 2005, Felton has produced what he calls the "Feltron Annual Report." Like Timeline, the Feltron report is a combination of narrative, data and graphic art. Felton's 2010 report chronicled his late father Gordon's life from 1929 to 2010, incorporating an analysis of 4,348 calendar entries, postcards, expense logs and passport stamps into decade-by-decade charts and graphs that illustrate his father's life.
At times, Zuckerberg would drop in on the Timeline development process. Felton remembers late one night when the Facebook CEO dropped in on the team, commandeered Felton's laptop and scrolled through Zuckerberg's own Timeline. It triggered memories for Zuckerberg, who began recounting those stories.
"About an hour later, we could get back to work," Felton said. "It's those moments that you realized you were onto something."
Ultimately, Lessin says, Zuckerberg decided the prototype was ready to go. "That's what Mark is the best in the world at — when you are in the middle of a project, knowing that you're done."
Lessin also sees Timeline as a memory-recovery device.
"We talk about how Facebook is a social graph (of friends), but memory is also graph-based. You see an object or thing that unlocks all those memories that surround it."
Timeline is also likely to be a significant source of revenue for Facebook. TBG Digital, a marketing company that helps advertisers place ads on the social network, says the feature will give Facebook more inventory to sell for advertising. Because Timeline can also help brands like Heineken or American Express tell their story, it is also a marketing tool, said TBG CEO Simon Mansell.
And in Facebook's battle with Google+, "this is a way for Facebook to leverage their advantage," Mansell said. "People have invested a lot of time putting their photos and other posts on Facebook, so it's partly a defensive move as well."
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Facebook faces a trademark lawsuit from a Chicago startup called Timelines.com that allows users to record and share personal or historic events. Lessin testified in the lawsuit that within two weeks of Facebook's announcement of the Timeline feature, 1.1 million people were using it, with more than 100,000 signing up every day, according to court records. At that rate, it now has at least 6 million users who have all gone through the complicated registration process required during the limited launch.
Facebook will say only that it will open Timeline to everybody "soon," but a spokeswoman said the launch has not been delayed and that the Timelines.com suit will not slow the release.
Given Facebook's long history of user outcries after major changes, the social network says it is happy to have the time to give access to a large group of early adopters.
"The more we can give people who want it early access," Lessin said, "the more those people can help inform other people about how to use it."