The new Facebook Timeline feature represents a shift in how we catalog our lives. It’s both a history textbook and a time machine, making you both an author and an astronaut. The transition to Timeline makes Facebook more than just another social network – it’s a database that documents the evolution of your mind over the course of your existence – one with hyperlinks to different times, places, people, thoughts and opinions. In this article, we’ll explore the impact Timeline has on the social networking industry and a few valuable takeaways for the business of law.
I. Introduction of the Facebook Timeline
Facebook is much like the internet as a whole: it’s only as powerful as the sum of its parts (us). It’s successes and failures compound on themselves. The more people who join and contribute, the more it has to offer, and the longer it stays relevant enough to sell ads to pay for the website. If people leave, especially in large numbers, users feel that no one is present to listen to them, so they search for other places to find people who will listen, and this accelerates the decline. In order to remain relevant, Facebook makes revisions to improve functionality, with the end-goal of encouraging more content creation. The more content created, the more relevent they are, the more ad revenue they generate, and the longer the wheels keep turning.
To understand the importance of Timeline, we first need to understand the value of Facebook. Prior to the internet, we had books filled with photos from Prom, VHS’s with birthday parties from the 90’s, records & cd’s with the songs from our past, and written correspondence from old friends filed in shoeboxes or lined under our mattresses for safekeeping. The internet digitalized these: Picasa for photos, GoogleDocs for documents, AOL for email, iTunes for music, and so on. Facebook was an extension of this evolution – the consolidation of our digital lives, rich with music, videos, pictures, and conversations, all into a single console that was easy to use and rapidly digestible.
When Facebook first started, it was inherently just a website that people used to share what they were doing and connect with others. As we used the site for a few years, we began creating volumes and volumes of content, which was stored chronologically on our Walls. The problem was that there was no way to rapidly access this content, and so it disappeared from our conscious awareness. To combat this Facebook created Timeline, which has effectively turned the site into a history textbook – one written for us, by us, and about us. Facebook realized that you can have all the information in the world, but if you can’t get at what you need, then all you have is a bunch of shouting. Timeline replaces the shouting with intimate conversations from our past…content that captures the core of our being – our experiences. What else better defines humanity than the ability to consciously experience life? Timeline gives us something we all yearn for: a portal to our past. It’s a time machine. And, at its core, it changes Facebook from just a picture of your day to a video stream of your past, present, and future. Pretty cool.
II. The Privacy War
We all know that Facebook has been retaining our historical information. For me, the practice dates to 2007 when I first signed up. This is a problem for Facebook because consumers feel that it’s a form of Big Brother – someone creating a “digital profile” of who we are, what our interests are, and what we buy. Due to our paranoia about IT-privacy, this historical data becomes only a negative for Facebook – one that can result in only two possible outcomes: either the Government compels them to fork up the information or angry users will flee the site in protest.
For a company that relies on this data to help sell you interest-specific ads this is a real problem. In order for Facebook to retain this historical data without repercussions, they know that they have to change their data retention model of “ours to keep and yours to lose”. It’s a liability. That’s because while yes, it is your data, once your content (likes, shares, comments, etc.) moves to the bottom of your Wall, it requires you to repeatedly click “see more” until you find what you’re looking for. It’s a slow and arduous task, and unless you’re perpetually unemployed or suffer from insomnia, no one actually has the time to do this in any meaningful capacity, ultimately meaning that the content, while yours in spirit, isn’t actually yours in practice. Facebook is smart though. They didn’t panic and destroy the data to qualm our paranoia – they simply created the Timeline.
Timeline changes Facebook’s data retention model from “ours to keep and yours to lose” to “ours to keep and yours to keep”. Timeline puts you in the driver seat by allowing you to rapidly access your historical content, effectively returning content to its rightful owner – you & I. Now that we have this access, we don’t really care that Facebook retains this data; in fact, we see the necessity of such retention: how can they offer us our Timeline without housing our data on their servers? It’s the complete opposite of where we were just a few days ago really. The takeaway is that Timeline allows Facebook to keep its goldmine of consumer statistics to help sell ads, put money in their pocket, and keep the site free to use.
III. What Facebook Has that Others Don’t
Assuming we adopt Timeline without resistance, we have given Facebook our implied consent to house all of our content indefinitely. This is a change from the constant paranoid state we’ve been in for the past several years where we wanted them to discard it for our safety and to prevent abuse. It immediately erases the two previous potential end-results of our paranoia (Government takeover or users fleeing the site) and replaces it with a constant: your Timeline. Once we have it, once we use it, and once we rely on it, it’ll never go away. And neither will your historical data.
If you dig deeper, however, there’s more to the story than meets the eye: it’s a way to stomp out defectors who start their own competitive social networking sites. Take Google+ for instance. Prior to the Timeline addition, what was Facebook’s primary competitive advantage? It was that all of your friends were already Facebook users, meaning you had people to share stuff with and someone who could listen to you. As it sits, Google+ is a ghost town, and it’s no fun to share your pictures and videos with a bunch of tumbleweeds. The fact that Facebook didn’t provide meaningful access to our historical content, presented an opening for Google+ to rise in popularity, so long as they continued to see steady adoption and brought people to the site who could listen to you. The more people who joined Google+ the more people you had to share stuff with, and the less of a disadvantage Google was at when competing with Facebook.
So how does Timeline help squash upstart social networking sites like Google+? Because Facebook has one thing no one else does: a digital chronology of your life. They have the evolution of your mind, complete with your triumphs and tragedies, documented on their servers and available to you on demand. And it’ll be at least five years before Google+, or anyone else, even gets the chance to share with you the same experience. By affording you meaningful access to your past, Facebook has created an experience that no other social networking site can replicate – at least for now – because none of the other competing social networking sites, like Google+, have had you on their site for 5 or more years, and this helps further solidify Facebook’s leadership role in the social networking community. By the time others can replicate this experience Facebook will be touting their newest and best release ever (whatever that will be), meaning their competition will always be playing catch-up. Talk about job security.
IV. What Facebook Can Teach You About Running Your Law Firm
1. Be the Change You Want To See – It’s important to understand that perpetual evolution is necessary for any business trying to remain relevant in the 21st Century. What ultimately lead to the downfall of MySpace? Facebook stepped in as a more nimble competitor and out-innovated them, rendering them irrelevant.This model of continuous improvement is one with demonstrated successes; by making frequent updates Facebook evolves contemporaneously, allowing them to both understand & define the current needs of their users. We didn’t know we needed a Timeline feature six months ago, did we? We do now.
Facebook’s constant revisions are almost always fought by users at first, and then adopted later once the user knows how to use the feature to their benefit. This is related to their incessant need for stability and predictability – a human security mechanism. We all like things that we know are safe. People eat at McDonald’s, in part, because no matter where you go in the world, no matter what time you go, the food always tastes the same. It’s safe and you know it’s safe, so you buy it. This security blanket can stifle innovation though, so if you want to stop chasing the benchmark and start spending time being the benchmark, you need to see past this and make changes that, like the Timeline did, define our expectations not appease them. Apple is notorious for doing this.
Take your own employees for instance. Yes, while quite honorable indeed, they almost never want you to adopt a new technology or a new way of doing something, even if it’ll be net-gain for you (and thus for them); they’d rather stick to what they know and live with all the workarounds because it’s safe and predictable. In the wild, this a smart move that might lend you a few extra years on this Earth. In the 21st Century, however, it means lost opportunities because your clients know that an efficient lawyer is better bang for the buck than an inefficient one.
2. Our Needs Change Rapidly – In the 21st Century our needs are evolving at the speed of light, changing how we engage clients and distribute products and services. Change happens faster due to the new channels by which we can spread information via word of mouth. People want safety & predictability but they also want new things and better ways of doing things. For McDonald’s, this meant adding healthy foods and a coffee menu to their already proven burger lineup. For Facebook it meant throwing out the Wall and throwing in a Timeline. For a law firm it’ll mean providing the same great services while offering complimentary ones, perhaps not even legal-specific ones, to meet these changing needs.
3. People Want to be Heard – No one wants to go to a place where they can’t be heard. No one wants to be part of something that doesn’t matter. That’s why social media is a business of compound wins and losses. The more people who join, the more that are likely to join. The more people that leave, the more likely others are to leave. Under this model, there is no exclusion for the business of law. People will flock to and from your firm based on what others are doing and based on what they read in the papers or in electronic peer reviews, so you need to provide channels by which you can both engage your clients but also listen to them. Maybe meet them in the suburbs for coffee instead of forcing them to march Downtown to your office. Who wants to do that anyway?
4. Books Aren’t Any Good If You Can’t Read – Simply put, you can have all the information, knowledge and resources – but it doesn’t do you any good if you can’t find what you are looking for when you need it. If you know your client’s name, address, DOB, SSN, business tax ID, previous purchases, and ex-wife’s deceased pet name – that’s great. But if you can’t get to that information in real-time it’s wasted space on your hard drive. So use technology in a way that allows you to rapidly access a few lines of content from terabytes of data, just as your client is walking into your office.
5. Your Clients Don’t Want to Leave You – Another advantage you have is that people don’t want to leave you. It takes work. It takes time. It takes money. No one wants to leave Facebook because they have to re-do everything: photos, videos, notes, friending, preferences, security, a new username, a new password – it’s a lot of work. You have the same advantage Facebook has regarding your current client base: they don’t want to leave. They know they will end up wasting time and spending money on bringing their new attorney up to speed. Continue providing good service and good value, and keep expanding what you can offer and they won’t go searching for greener pastures.
6. Sell an Experience – Few of us randomly decided out of the blue that we’d give Facebook a go. Facebook sells you into being a user. They do this the good old-fashioned way – by selling an experience. It’s sales 101. No one buys based on price (even if they say they do), they buy on value. Value is best delivered by selling an experience. Apple consumers wait in line and pack into Apple stores like sardines just to pay the sticker price when they could go Amazon and save both time & money. So why do they do it? Because it’s an experience. You can brew your own cup of coffee for a couple of quarters. Why buy at Starbucks? Because it’s an experience to sit in a coffee shop reading the WSJ on your tablet.
People use social media, and the tools therein (i.e., Timeline), to make sure they’re heard but also because they have a deeply rooted desire to be part of something. Part of the lure of, say Monday Night Football, is that even if you’re home alone on your couch, you are still connected with the rest of the world in this event that you share together, moment by moment, in real-time. Captivating television shows, or movies, or viral videos, are an experience; you can’t wait to go to work the next day to talk to your coworkers about that pick-6 at the end of the fourth quarter or about Antoine Dodson’s news interview. So your products and services should offer an experience of some kind as well, one that drives value to your firm and builds loyalty.
Timeline takes the current Facebook experience and accelerates it ten-fold. Instead of having quick access to the last five days worth of stuff on your Wall, you now have the last five years on your Timeline. Instead of just having the present and future on Facebook, you now have the past as well. Facebook embodies what a service should be – an experience – and if you can replicate this experience in your practice area then people will pay you what you ask and come back multiple times over their life-cycle. The future of your practice depends on transforming basic and even complex legal services into peace of mind, enjoyment, and value, and the firm that does this will be around for a very long time.