🚗 🚙 Turn your trusty old car into trustworthy journalism Learn more

Facebook Timeline can make you share more than you intended

Molly Wood Jan 31, 2012

Facebook is changing and if you’re on Facebook, there’s no avoiding those changes. As we’ve mentioned on the program before, Facebook Timeline is rolling out to all users. Once you get it, you’ll have up to seven days to edit how this new version of the profile page looks. After that, whether you monkey with it or not, it goes live.

A new report from the security firm Sophos indicates that people aren’t real excited about the change. Of 4,000 people surveyed, only about 8 percent liked the new feature, while another 8 percent thought they’d get used to it eventually. Fifty-one percent, on the other hand, found the Timeline to be troubling.

Some of that discomfort might stem from the fact that Timeline is becoming mandatory rather than opt-in. And why is that? Some at Facebook would probably say that it’s a great new feature, it looks fantastic, and is a fun and useful way to share information. But remember the old saying about free services like Facebook: If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. When it comes to Facebook, it’s always useful to look at what’s in it for advertisers.

Under the old Facebook profile, you just see the most recent activity someone had. That’s not the case any more. “For all this time, everything that was on Facebook is since you became a part of Facebook,” says Anandra Mitra, professor of communication at Wake Forest University. “Now, they’re saying OK, let’s go back into your life when there wasn’t any digital pictures, there wasn’t any digital sound, now you go back and take that and put it up there, and so the advertisers have a deeper knowledge base about this individual.”

And once the advertisers have that information about you, they can really get to work. “The more they know about you, the more they can target you, the better they can target you and and understand exactly what type of consumer you are, what you might be interested in , what ads you might click on and what products you might buy,” says Nate Elliott, principal researcher at Forrester Research. “That’s good for Facebook because it helps them generate greater yield, or basically get more money from advertisers for each ad that they show. And it’s good for advertisers because it ultimately leads to more effective advertising and helps them sell more products and services.”

So in other words, if I fill in that I went to an Iron Maiden concert in 1985, that’s information that can be given to advertisers, who will buy ads from Facebook targeting me.

“What they presumably will be doing is using this information in anonymized buckets,” Elliott says. “But, if they collect enough different data points about people’s lives and put them into enough of these different buckets, then that should allow them to better match up advertisements with consumers. It’s the kind of thing that companies like Google have been doing successfully for years. Quite frankly, Facebook knows a lot about you, but the more they know about their audience, the more successfully they can do this kind of thing.”

But advertisers aren’t the only ones interested in what’s on your timeline. Thieves are too. “Encouraging that extra sharing and all that other information does put some of your other accounts at risk on the Internet when we look at things like security questions that get asked in order to gain access or reset your passwords on other sites and programs,” says Chester Wisniewski of Sophos. He says to think twice before listing, say, your first pet’s name, your mother’s maiden name, and all those little bits of information so often used for verification.

“There’s a lot of information that could be mined to gain access to other data on other services from the information on Timeline,” Wisniewski says.

Also in this program, Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips releases a new song with backing vocals by Siri, the artificial intelligence digital assistant from the iPhone 4S. Gimmicky? Silly? Sure, I suppose. But the song is also kind of beautiful.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.