En español | Facebook has just made several significant changes to the world's most popular social network, with another major alteration right around the corner. For the most part, these are real improvements, though you will have to learn some new tricks to make the most of the revised service. And as always with Facebook, with new power comes new privacy concerns.
Illustration by Erin Freedman
See Also: Social networking how-to guides.
The most positive step is precisely the one that isn't available to the public just yet — a replacement for the familiar Profile page. Right now, your personal Profile page displays your background info, the stuff you like, your friends and your Facebook postings in a fairly functional, though frankly ugly layout. Within the next few weeks your Profile will disappear and Timeline will take its place.
Unlike the cluttered Profile, Timeline is a handsomely designed presentation. There's room at the top for a large photo (in addition to your existing profile photo) to show a scene that's important to you. This is followed by your basic info, and then a chronological display of posts, photos, videos and status changes you've shared on Facebook since becoming a member, all on one continuous page. Want to see what you posted last November? Four years ago on your anniversary? No need to keep hitting an "Older posts" button till your finger gets sore — just scroll down. It sounds time-consuming, but it really zooms along very smoothly. I'd still like to see a full-featured search capability added to Facebook, but I guess they need to hold off on some improvements so they'll have a big announcement for next year.
It would be cumbersome to include everything you've posted on Facebook in your Timeline. Instead, the most significant items are displayed, with more stories shown for recent activity and fewer as you scroll down. For starters, Facebook takes its best guess at what's worth displaying — personal photos and relationship status changes outrank a new restaurant you discovered, for example. But all your posts are actually available on the Timeline, some featured in pretty boxes, others represented by gray dots on the line that reveal their contents when you hold your mouse over them. You're free to highlight, move and remove stories, add items to fill in the gaps, change image sizes and so on. Basically, it's a scrapbooker's dream come true in digital form, and a lot easier to share than hauling around bound volumes.
PROS: Your Facebook Profile is transformed into a visually appealing, information-rich, online scrapbook.
CONS: Customizing the Timeline till it's just right will require learning a new system and putting in some effort on your part.
Newsfeed and Ticker
Another update, which is probably already live on your account, is a change from the familiar Newsfeed to a two-pronged approach. With the new system, the main Newsfeed only show posts that Facebook thinks are important. If you disagree with Facebook's estimation, you can click on a box in the corner and let the system know you disagree — theoretically, it will learn your preferences over time. Those who don't log on to Facebook frequently will really benefit from this Newsfeed arrangement, since your friends' most significant posts since your last visit are boosted to the top of the list. Under the old system, they might be buried several pages down.
And what happens to everything the system doesn't feature in the Newsfeed? It goes into a separate Ticker along the right side of the page, which displays every update of any kind from all your friends as they occur. If you see something interesting in the Ticker, hold your cursor over the item and it will expand into a full-size story. It's not a bad system, though I did find one problem when dealing with the Ticker: the column is narrow, and it's tough clicking on the little slider to scroll down and see older postings. The simple solution is to use a mouse with a scroll wheel. That way, instead of trying to click on a skinny little slice of screen, you just leave your cursor anywhere over the column and scroll up and down by spinning the wheel.
PROS: The most relevant recent news is prominently displayed.
CONS: The narrow Ticker column can be hard to navigate.
So we have your Facebook life organized into a personal Timeline, a Newsfeed with top stories and a Ticker with everything that's going on. We're also getting a new way to add information to those locations, and that's where you want to be vigilant. Facebook has given developers the tools to create applications that not only track your online activity, but display it in your Timeline, Newsfeed and Ticker. A prime example is the new Spotify app, which lets you listen to music and lists the songs you've chosen in the Ticker for all your friends to see. Those who've also signed up for Spotify can click on the item and start listening along with you, which is kind of intriguing. And the app can also provide some interesting overview information to help you discover new music. For example, it can tell you that six of your friends listened to a new Sheryl Crow album this week.
The question is, how much do you really want to share with your friends? In the case of Spotify it's an all or nothing deal — you can turn off sharing altogether, or you can let your friends see all the songs you play, including those guilty pleasure tunes best kept to yourself (The Chipmunks singing "I Like Big Butts"? Really?).
These new sharing-intensive apps will include a wide variety of activities, including playing games, reading news stories, watching videos, exercising, cooking recipes and more. Maybe you don't care if all your Facebook friends know you're scarfing down Triple Decadence Fudge Brownies, or reading a news story about sexual dysfunction among senior men. If you're a little more reserved, though, you'll want to check the privacy settings for each app and make the appropriate adjustment. This is usually accomplished by going to Facebook's Privacy Settings section, choosing Apps, and clicking the arrow next to "App activity privacy." Facebook would prefer you share with the world so, when you first click here, your only choices will be Public, Friends of Friends, Friends and Customize. You'll have to choose Customize to set the sharing option "Only Me."
One final Facebook development deserves a warm round of applause. They just partnered with a company called Websense to check the safety of any link offered up on Facebook when you click on it, helping weed out the types of viruses, malware and fraud we've covered before (Fight Facebook Fraud). While you should still use common sense before clicking on suspicious links, this is a major step in the right direction.
PROS: A worthwhile tool in the battle against the Facebook fraud epidemic.
CONS: Could lull users into a false sense of security — you should still think before clicking.