Facebook’s new Timeline has been hailed as a digital mirror of our lives but it also provides a new window into the company itself. The view can be troubling.
Look at the marketing images that Facebook has released to tout Timeline and you’ll notice a pattern.
The archetypal Timeline user in the images is a young, male engineering type striking a triumphant pose.
In one common media pic, we see a Timeline protagonist astride an ATV wearing Viking horns while a chick in the background hops on his machine. In another, the hero belts out a rocking karaoke track holding his mini-me. In another, he simply stands smirking with shades and ball cap, looking fly.
The group pictures promoting Timeline are not much better. They feature gaggles of young white and Asian guys with a chick or two and a bottle of booze (‘wink, wink we like drinking’).
These images are not a surprise and many of us know them well – they are a writ-large version of campus engineering culture. And it makes sense that this is how Facebook expresses itself because, after all, it was built and founded by engineering students.
But this is why Facebook sometimes scares the hell out of me. The company is one of the most powerful repositories of human culture and history ever invented, yet those who run it can seem incapable of expressing a worldview that extends beyond coding and flip-cup.
There is a crassness here that resembles another old college icon, the sock on the door. The sock gesture is supposed to a do-not-disturb act of courtesy but, in reality, it’s a way for a guy to boast to everyone in the dorm that he scored.
In the same way, Facebook’s corporate messaging can feel disingenuous. Facebook touts itself a place of community but company images often reflect an ethos of college braggadocio.
The problem here is not that Facebook is racist or sexist, as some women writers claimed in response to scenes from The Social Network. The company is actually no different than any other tech firm where white and Asian men are the predominant demographic.
Rather, the issue is that the company’s public images fail to reflect the diverse and variegated life experience of its hundreds of millions of users.
This wouldn’t really matter if Facebook was simply another technology website. But it’s not.
Facebook is now much more – it’s a vital curator of human culture and memory. And remember too that Facebook, not you, owns the data beyond the story of your life you see depicted in your new Timeline.
If Facebook is to wield such cultural power, its marketers and executives must do a better job of acknowledging who its users are. The vast majority of them are not young engineers but instead women and men of all ages, incomes and background.
It’s time for the company to realize that what it owns is closer to National Geographic than Maxim magazine.