“What part of life can you make transparent to make the world better?”
The provocative question came from Paige Craig, a Los Angeles-based angel investor who’d flown up from “Silicon Beach” to speak at TEDxConstitutionDrive. Every day, he remarked, the Internet produces new tools that challenge the taboos we once had related to owning our identity on the Web.
In a world where publicly sharing your every purchase may not seem like a big deal, it can be hard to remember what it was like before we were so open about ourselves online. But as I listened to Craig, it occurred to me that Facebook didn’t change the world because it built a social network. Facebook changed the world because it changed how people owned their identities on the Internet.
No longer was the World Wide Web a dark, scary underworld of pseudonymous pedophiles. The Internet became a place where it was okay to be yourself, to own your whole identity. Unlike its forefathers, Friendster and MySpace, Facebook required your real name (first and last) and created a safe place to share your real photo, your real school, and your real a/s/l.
When Mark Zuckerberg introduced Facebook Timeline recently at F8, the company’s annual developer conference, it just made sense—it’s the next step to bringing our real selves online and owning them. This reincarnation of the iconic Facebook profile shares not only your recent activity, but serves as rich repository of stories dating all the way back to the day you were born. Sources say it will roll out to users in the next few weeks.
Sam Lessin, one of the Facebook Timeline masterminds, made a comment to me at TEDxEast in New York City that I’m reminded of as I reflect on the idea of ownership. Ownership is on the outs, he said. If you can afford it, it’s better to have someone else own for you.
It got me thinking: What does ownership really mean? If you own a physical asset—a home, a car, an evening gown, an impressive DVD collection—it’s something you’re proud of, something you want to show off to other people. But as we increasingly use technology and the social graph to share and rent those assets (Airbnb, Relay Rides, Rent the Runway, Netflix), the need for physical ownership is greatly reduced.
So this is where it gets interesting: The Internet may help you shed ownership of your physical assets, but at the same time it’s facilitating an increased ownership of your identity. As we move more of ourselves online, the physical manifestations of our identities (things) become less important, and the true building blocks of our identities (stories, experiences, relationships) have a better platform to be shared. Putting aside the thorny issue of who literally owns your data—a concern Facebook will continue to battle—Timeline is an exciting advance in owning our identities online.
And that’s why Timeline could be a brilliant move. Facebook has spent seven years laying the foundation for the day when someone could tell people to put their entire life online and not be laughed out of the room. The architects of the social network laid planks one by one: first photos, then news feeds, then apps, now open graph. There’s been some kicking and screaming along the way, but Facebook has held our hands and guided us into a new digital world where we can proudly own who we are, what we’ve done, and where we’re going.
When I think about Craig’s quote, I can’t help but get excited. As someone who’s always loved stories more than things, I love watching the Internet facilitate a transition away from physical assets and toward owning our identities. If we do this thing right, sharing our authentic selves online might just make the world a better place.
Learn more about Facebook Timeline and the site’s other new features in “Facebook 411: Your Guide to the New Features”