Is It Time for the Timeline to Die?

Whether it is brands, platforms, or users who provide it, context is the crux of intelligent, compelling discovery. The timeline simply does not hold up.

Since the emergence of modern-day social media, the de facto means of discovering and accessing social content has been the timeline. It’s time for the timeline to die.

Its death is inevitable. The timeline is a lumbering dinosaur roaming the social landscape for too long, having served and completed its purpose long ago. Platforms cling to it as the status quo; it has been “good enough.” They’re scared to rock the boat, much less let go of it. This is a mistake. Twitter will be the first to tell you; they may not be ready yet, but soon.

The timeline is actually a bastardized hybrid of two critical functions: discovery and notification. The timeline determines what we see and when. When a post is presented, all or at least most of its contents are displayed right then and there. The post may link to additional content off-platform, such as a web link, but that content is not actually part of the social post itself.

Is the timeline the right vehicle for determining what we see and when? In a pure “lean back” application it can suffice, although certainly not ideally. It can work if we are looking simply to pass time idly, as many of us do often enough. But even then, a pure timeline takes no account of what might be most interesting to us in those moments. We get everything – or everything within the field of view we have defined for ourselves, through who or what we follow.

In most applications, the timeline is probably the least efficient vehicle possible for discovering content. Most damning, it is completely ignorant of context. Context is the soul of discovery, and a timeline mindlessly throwing flotsam of all sizes and shapes into the same stream has no soul.

Part of the evolving landscape is the sheer volume and weight of content being loaded directly into the stream – mostly because that’s where we want it. We don’t want to click off-platform or step out of our workflow to get the message – we want it right there. Major publishers’ recent deals with Facebook are a dramatic concession to this inevitability.

If the message is not right there in the stream, more and more often it will be ignored. There is simply far too much to consume, yet the timeline presumes we see everything. If it does not show us everything, then we risk missing the important stuff, which is unacceptable. No discovery tool can survive if it does not promise to lead us to the content we personally define as most important.

What the timeline does do is promise to lead us to the content that is most current, which brings us to the second of the timeline’s hybrid functions: notification. Timelines let us know of the latest news, events and other developments. Its chronological urgency elevates timeliness to the greatest of the virtues. This has evolved as the heart of Twitter’s success.

But for notification the timeline also has flaws: first, its notifications are again without context. Not all notifications are created equal. We may want to be notified when a product is listed for sale. We may also want to be notified if our house is on fire.Clearly we need the ability to categorize and prioritize; timelines do not allow this. Second, timelines are too heavy and too laden with details to be fully effective for notifications.

We don’t need the details in the notification stream itself – we just need the notification. We need a “Yo.” Then we can decide if and when we want the details. By including all the details at the outset, a timeline dilutes its value as a notification stream considerably.

What will be the evolution of the timeline? Certainly more sophisticated and better integrated notification systems will evolve, allowing us to define, categorize, prioritize and manage all elements of our lives worthy of notification in one place.

The other part of the answer is more difficult… that is how we will discover and access social content with greater context and far more efficiency. It seems likely that multiple vehicles will emerge for different applications – but all will be driven with context as their heart, soul and engine. Algorithms are already threatening to twist many familiar timelines into more contextually-driven tools that behave less and less like timelines, even while maintaining the familiar trappings.

Adding Tweets to Google search may be helpful, but it’s not the answer either. It’s unlikely that the same tools we use to discover web and other content will be effective for social content. While that would be convenient, social content is far too different.

Most social content does not stand fully on its own; it tends toward granularity and is steeped in context that doesn’t travel with the post. Content is created amidst a web of dependencies and relationships that lie outside its container. A Tweet, a picture, a pin, a meme, a vine, while amusing, is not truly meaningful until we understand the context in which it was created. Some of that context may be implied, but so much of it goes missing.

As important as the post itself is where it comes from, from whom, and, most importantly, where it leads. A post rarely tells a complete story on its own, and stories are what engage us. When we move through a timeline we see posts without context, without this crucial meta data. If we identify interesting content, odds are we want to understand where it came from and where it is going next. We long to be led through a story, a compelling journey.

Evolution is more often than not driven by economics. Brands above all will welcome the death of the timeline. To a brand, the timeline is the most random, haphazard, inefficient and frustrating method imaginable to access their consumers. If a consumer does happen to light on their message, where will they go from there? Even if the message is compelling, the best brands can do is hope to lead the user off-platform to a web presence where they can be monetized or otherwise engaged. Socially, however, it is a dead end.

Instead of dead-ending the social experience, brands can help users continue it. This is a tremendous value that brands can provide, but far too few understand. Brands have the opportunity to lead the user on compelling journeys through social content that don’t end before the full stories have been told. This is true value-add for the consumer, and opportunity for the brand or anyone else providing a similar service.

This is native advertising at its best. By focusing less on content and more on context, brands have the opportunity to lead consumers on compelling journeys to and through their messaging. Brands have the opportunity to place messaging at the crucial junctures where it is most compelling and of real value. The deeper the consumer travels down the path, the more he/she is invested. The journey has been rewarding – it has told a compelling and powerful story.

Whether it is brands, platforms, or users who provide it, context is the crux of intelligent, compelling discovery. The timeline simply does not hold up.

Stephen Bradley is the founder and CEO of AuthorBee.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.