Facebook’s New Timeline: Data Goes In, But Can It Ever Leave?

At last week’s Facebook developers conference, f8, the company introduced the radically redesigned profile page now called the Facebook Timeline. Instead of a single column stream of status updates, shares and photo uploads, the new Timeline provides a deeper look into your past.

You navigate your Timeline through right-side navigation that lets you click into the months and years all the way back to the day of your birth. And with the new “life events” menu next to the revamped status update box, you can fill in the missing pieces of your life’s history, including marriage(s), divorce, births and deaths, job changes, moves, medical events, achievements, travels and anything else you want to record. (The latter thanks to the “other life event” option for anything that’s not already listed in Facebook’s provided drop-downs).

The end result, for those who take the time to go back and carefully document their past, is an online digital scrapbook reflecting the major moments of your life. It’s easy to do, and the results are compelling. But will you ever be able to pull that data back out of Facebook? Or will it be trapped in there forever?

Last fall, Facebook introduced a “Download Your Information” feature which lets users download a zip fie archive including their photos, albums, wall posts, status updates, friend list, notes, events and messages. The option, likely still unknown to the average Facebook user, was meant to counter Google’s claims that Facebook keeps your most valuable social data trapped inside its walls. The biggest concern was, and still is, gaining access to your friends’ email addresses. (Facebook allows you to export them, but only if friends give you permission).

Due to that restriction, as of today, email addresses are still a notably missing piece to the Facebook archive.

Also missing? Timeline data.

In tests, an export of my Facebook data included wall posts going back to 2009. However, on the Facebook website, I can delve deeper into my history, going all the way back to status updates circa 2006.

Like a digital archeology experiment, the new Timeline feature lets you get a glimpse into your earliest Facebook use. For example, many of my 2006 status updates were simply a single word (e.g., “online”) or a short phrase (“going to San Francisco”), entered in response to Facebook’s prompt at the time (“Sarah is…”)

Oh, how far Facebook has come.

But in the exported file, that treasure trove of older data is oddly missing.

In addition, after filling out a few major life events (for example, my marriage, the birth of my child), I again exported my Facebook data using the “Download Your Information” feature. Not surprisingly, those events weren’t included with the export, either, even though they fell within the range of years the export included.

One could argue that the developers’ version of the Timeline is still a work in progress, and we can’t make any determinations about what data will or will not be present in the Facebook download until the changes go live for all users. I certainly hope that’s the case.

That said, it’s worth noting that the Facebook FAQ about exporting your data has already been updated to include the verbiage “timeline” when referring to your Facebook profile data. Given this, the expectation is that the exported data would, in fact, include all your data including the new Timeline-only “life events.”

As of today, it does not. (Unless I’m experiencing some sort of bug).

Will it later? Unknown. Multiple requests to Facebook to clarify this issue have gone unanswered.

Sadly, even if Facebook chooses to never include all your data in the exported archive, few will care. Facebook’s users have proven, time and time again, that the network can do pretty much anything it wants, whether that’s a major redesign or an egregious privacy violation. It doesn’t matter, people won’t leave. Such is the power of Facebook and the network effect.

But by limiting the amount of data you can export (and let’s face it – where can you even take that data today? Google+?), Facebook only increases is already stranglehold-like grip on its users, to now include both their life histories and their memories, too.

Of course, you can argue, as my former colleague Frederic Lardinois recently did, that what you share on Facebook is not the “story of your life,” per se. As of today, that’s still true. But when the new Timeline features roll out and are adopted by the mainstream, Facebook profiles will become closer to a virtual mirror of our lives than any other network or website, including a personal blog, has ever been.

And to think that your data – that precious, personal, digital archive of a lifetime – will belong only to Facebook, with no discernible exit in site, is downright unsettling.