Our most tech-savvy readers probably followed the much-awaited F8 Developer Conference in San Francisco. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg introduced the upcoming developments of the world’s leading social network, which already boasts 800m+ members across the globe. Ahead of the event, the Facebook team provided in a blog post the following statement.
“The way your profile works today, 99 percent of the stories you share vanish. The only way to find the posts that matter is to click ‘Older Posts’ at the bottom of the page. Again. And again. Imagine if there was an easy way to rediscover the things you shared, and collect all your best moments in a single place.”
The fear of information overload. Finding an “easy way” to sort data. Sounds familiar? Although a leading actor in the information landscape, Facebook is not spared with the infobesity phenomenon. Quite the contrary: the sky-rocketing number of its users only increases the amount the data being provided on the platform, like photos, posts, status updates and all sort of functionalities we are all way too familiar with.
It is precisely acknowledged, and on a regular basis criticized by the Guardian, that the business model of Facebook is essentially based on valuing this user information. In the midst of the data age, trading human details is seen as a viable commodity, as Facebook is increasingly opening up to collaboration with businesses.
Hence the necessity for the kids of Palo Alto to ensure that this user data does not lose its value. In its current form, the older the data on Facebook, the trickier it is to retrieve, and is therefore less valuable. Having to venture into the depth of someone’s profile to find an activity more than a week old is cumbersome and quite unnatural. This created the necessity to bring clarity to this user-generated information jungle.
Changing the way we absorb data
Among other developments, Facebook VP of product Christopher Cox unveiled the new Timeline feature, which was described as “a great way to discover all the things people have done their whole life”, and “a completely new aesthetic for Facebook”.
I find interesting to remind who is behind the Timeline project. Last April, Facebook made the headlines by hiring data visualisation pundits Ryan Case and Nicholas Felton.
At Dataveyes, we have been praising the advantages of data visualisation regarding news reporting and globally speaking, the understanding of complex matters through visual mediation. An infographics guru himself, it seems that Felton managed to incline social networks on this side as well. The man knows his data: check out his annual report on his life, reported on the NYT blog.
Timeline follows the exact same process, based on how information overload can be defeated through a new visual paradigm. The eye-catching display aims to retain user attention and bring structure to a confusing ocean of information. Interactive timelines have long proven their use in a news reporting context, as evidenced by the Wall Street Journal piece below (click to access map)
Displaying the complex story of a user’s life on Facebook information is to an extent no different from visualising national unemployment rate or the funding system of political parties (See our French Political Atlas here). In the end, what matters is bringing meaning out of long unused -because inacessible- large amounts of data.
Facing information overload, one would be prone to discarding the data which is not easily retrievable. A more user friendly visual display brings more clarity, thus increasing user navigation, traffic and ultimately, the commercial value of its data.
Meanwhile, at Google…
The fierce Google+/ Facebook battle is also waged on the fields of data visualization. Last year, the Mountain View firm hired the two former leaders of IBM’s Visual Communication Lab and Flowing Media Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg. Not-so-incidentally, the two partners, while at Flowing Media, had developed a promising TimeFlow analytical timeline project.
More than a legacy, the project is a visualisation tool for temporal data, thus pursuing the same objective as its Facebook rival. In other words, display scattered information in an easy to read, concise way, in order to make the data do the talking and identify patterns that you couldn’t see from ground level.
As I write these lines, there is no evidence that Google, the pair’s new employer, will go down the data visualisation route. But again, Facebook only took four months to turn the skills of Feltron and Case into a major business project. In any case, the fact that two of the world’s most powerful enemies today embed data visualisation into their workflow is indeed a sign of the times.
Expect Dataveyes to keep you posted on the course of this information warfare. Using an interactive timeline, possibly.
Bonus: A video of Mark Zuckerberg introducing the Timeline feature at the F8 conference