commentary In 1952, a TV host and producer named Ralph Edwards created a show that married the intoxicating power of nostalgia with the immediacy of television.
The idea was simple: celebrities and the occasional ordinary citizen would be surprised with the story of their own life, told through the words of a few influential people they met along the way. Their past was resurfaced, warts and all, to a studio audience and millions of viewers.
The result was sentimental, awkward, moving, heartbreaking, invasive, and hilarious depending on your perspective and the particular episode. "This is Your Life" was a new way of harnessing television and the past to package up lives into bite-size entertainment.
The world, or at least its 800 million Facebook users, is about to have its "This is Your Life" moment.
It's a wonderful life
Facebook Timeline, a complete overhaul of personal profiles that is being rolled out in the coming weeks, is built around a similarly simple and powerful idea: what if you could see your whole life in one place?
Timeline is a way of visualizing your life (or rather your life as it has been lived on Facebook). You can easily scroll through and see the friends you made, the photos you uploaded, your relationship statuses, and even your illnesses and surgeries--if you choose to share them. You can see highlights from a particular year or bore down to individual months and days.
It's a beautiful--and beautifully designed--vision, and it makes me wish my grandparents had magically used Facebook their entire lives so I could go back and scroll through their Timelines to learn more about them now that they're gone. I could easily see photos of when my parents were born, what my hometown looked like 50 years ago, and what it was like to be a fledgling beekeeper in Eastern Oregon during the Great Depression.
If Facebook's vision comes to pass, Timeline could be a visual catalog of every life ever lived, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. We could see the benchmarks in our friends' lives, watch people age, see their old prom and wedding photos and the birth of their children.
In the words of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, "It's all here, it's your whole life."
Better than you know yourself
And if the idea of having your entire life online and easily scrollable sends chills down your spine...well, quite frankly Zuckerberg should be forgiven for not believing you.
Facebook has become a world-changing force by ignoring what people claimed they would be uncomfortable sharing online. Most famously, in 2006 users yelped at the introduction of the News Feed, which surfaced your activities on Facebook to your friends. People called it "creepy" and "invasive" and "social stalking." The uproar forced Zuckerberg to issue a mea culpa.
Now the News Feed is such a part of everyday life even my mom posted a horrified message when Facebook merely changed the way it displayed status updates.
To be sure, Facebook has allayed some concerns over the years by enabling and simplifying privacy options (if belatedly and occasionally haphazardly), but make no mistake: Facebook thinks you actually want to share more than you say you want to share. What seemed creepy five years ago now seems mundane.
And this month Zuckerberg is upping the ante by betting that you really do want your entire life on Facebook. That you'll get over your initial squeamishness when you see the fun of scrolling through your various hairstyles and the important milestones in your life. That no social network has gone broke overestimating what the public actually wants to share.
Is he right?
We'll always (and I mean always) have Paris
If you happen to be a 27-year-old self-made billionaire who has never gone through a breakup during the time he was on Facebook, as seems to be the case with Mark Zuckerberg, it may not be so horrifying to have your past surfaced to all your friends.
But what about those of us who haven't lived neat and tidy lives that lend themselves to Timeline and instead have gone through breakups or divorces during the Facebook era, or merely posted embarrassing status updates that we'd like to forget?
Right now, those old updates and relationships are mostly buried. It's difficult if not impossible to go hunting for the early days on Facebook that you have now long forgotten about, and many of us breathe a sigh of relief that that's the case.
Soon, unless you go back and delete or change the visibility settings for all those old posts (and Facebook will reportedly give you a grace period to do just that), your new significant other will be able to see exactly how great a time you had with your ex in Hawaii in 2007.
And more seriously, there are loved ones who have passed and dark times we don't want to revisit and embarrassing things that we'd much rather stay hidden.
What if you want the past to stay in the past?
Your life, online
Timeline is a bet that the same formula that made "This is Your Life" a success in the '50s holds true today: we'll suffer through the occasional embarrassment and be willing, even happy participants in the erosion of our own privacy as long as the entertainment value is sufficient.
And make no mistake: Timeline is terrifically entertaining. In fact, Facebook is hoping that it's so entertaining you'll spend hours filling in all those gaps from your pre-Facebook life and provide still more information about yourself than what is automatically surfaced.
But a certain "ick" factor absolutely remains, and this is uncharted territory for many people. Between Timeline and new Open Graph apps like Spotify, which, if enabled, allows your friends to see what music you're listening to in real time, we'll soon find out precisely how tolerant we are of living our lives in semi-public view and exactly how much we're comfortable with our friends (and Facebook) knowing about us.
World, this is your life. Are you ready?