Facebook Reveals More Details About Timeline, Including an Approval Process for Open Graph Apps

“We’ve tried to be mindful about the lessons we’ve learned” Facebook Product Manger Manager Carl Sjogreen told me this morning when we sat down to discuss Timeline, the redesigned version of the user profile that debuted at f8 last month. He says that as the product rolls out over the next few weeks, Facebook will be manually reviewing and approving new Open Graph apps to prevent the spammy experience that emerged when temporarily gave third-party applications a place on the profile years ago.

This approach is much more similar to how Apple must approve apps before they enter the App Store than the way Facebook allows canvas apps to launch on its Platform without pre-approval. Sjogreen also revealed more details about Timeline, including that users will be given a curation period to manicure the content displayed in their new profile before it becomes visible to friends. Facebook believes that through social content curation and new lifestyle apps, users will be able to express themselves in more nuanced ways than ever before.

Timeline’s Impact on Privacy

Facebook launched Timeline to allow users to tell their story not just through their most recent activity as the old profile wall did, but through all of the most important moments of their life. Users can also authorize Open Graph apps to automatically publish activity such as song listens to their Timeline. Sjogreen says “All the feedback is pretty positive. People have complimented the design aesthetic”, which includes a place for a big banner image and provides users the flexibility to feature or hide different content.

Since a user’s friends can easily navigate all the way back to their first Facebook posts through Timeline, a lot of content that was previously difficult to access will become readily visible. This content might include major life events, but also objectionable or inappropriate posts users might have forgotten about but wouldn’t want family or professional colleagues to see.

No privacy settings have been changed and all Timeline content could previously be found by scrolling far enough down a user’s profile, but Timeline does allow historic content to be accessed with one or two clicks rather than dozens or hundreds.

To address this, when users receive the rollout of Timeline, Sjogreen says they’ll be given a curation period in which only they will be abe to see their Timeline so they can go back and hide content or adjust its privacy controls. They can then publish the Timeline and make it visible when they’re ready. Developers were given a similar curation period when they first received access to Timeline at f8.

Still, Facebook will need to carefully inform users of the importance of this curation period or they might skip it and make content visible that they might later regret. Sjogreen said he wasn’t aware of plans for this kind of messaging, though.

Regarding less appropriate content becoming visible, Sjogreen reflected Facebook’s goals of people becoming more open as well as cultural norm changes (privacy relaxing over time). “Timeline will be seen in a broader context. I think people understand that everyone went to college, everyone has a photo they posted to Facebook from college.” Everyone’s employers might not be so keen on seeing such racy party pictures or controversial status updates, though.

Timeline Apps Will Be Reviewed by Facebook

From 2008 to 2010, Facebook allowed users to install applications on their profile. While some conveyed important information such as where a user had travelled, Sjogreen told me that users would install “clowny apps” that they’d soon stop using, that would retain a prominent place on the profile with the intention of spreading virally.

Facebook gradually hid then finally removed all profile apps in 2010. It is now applying the lessons it learned from its first attempt at profile apps to create a less spammy experience this time around. Timeline is designed to show more recent activity, but increasingly weed out less important content as users scroll backwards. Sjogreen says “apps don’t have a permanent place in the Timeline” meaning if a user installs an app but stops using it, it will quickly become less visible.

Along the same lines, Sjogreen tells me Facebook will not reward apps that publish more frequently than others. For example, say a user listens to 100 songs on Spotify and tracks one run using Nike’s running app in a single week. Timeline might give the two apps equal real estate by only showing a report of a user’s most listened to songs but still showing news of the one workout.

“We’ve learned a lot in hindsight, and built a lot of technologies to make sure we’re targeting users with info they find relevant” says Sjogreen. By using its new Open Graph app activity sorting algorithm Graph Rank and other systems, Sjogreen tells me Facebook has reduced Platform spam by 99%, up from the 95% reduction in spam Facebook CTO Bret Taylor cited at our Inside Social Apps conference in January.

Developers are helping with this process by structuring the data about user activity that the send to Facebook. They can select from official verbs and nouns such as “listened” and “song” to let Facebook know what kind of content they’re submitting. Facebook can then determine that each song listen might be less important to display in Timeline than actions that occur less frequently such as meals cooked or movies watched. Custom actions and objects can also be configured by developers.

However, to “make sure the initial experience with Timeline is really great” Facebook is now manually reviewing the submission of new Open Graph apps to check out their nouns, verbs, and what triggers an activity to be published.

This approval process differs significantly from its Games Platform, where developers publicly launch an app without needing permission from Facebook; apps only get reviewed by the company if they receive negative feedback from users. Sjogreen tell me that “something publishing every minute will get shut down quickly or never be approved in the first place. We’re trying not to get in the business of making value judgements like that knitting app is good and this joke app is bad, but we’re making sure apps are only publishing legitimate activity.”

Such an approach might make it harder for developers, but it should work well to protect the user experience from spam apps that constantly publish low quality stories to the Timeline and home page Ticker. Regarding whether this approach would scale when more and more developers begin submitting apps, Sjogreen says “this level of approval is different than us playing every game on the Platform and making sure it meets some quality bar.”

Facebook is preparing to make a major change to how users express themselves with the rollout of Timeline. It will need to clearly communicate the privacy implications of ready access to old content in order to avoid backlash. It will also need to strike a proper balance between a clean user experience and an attractive Open Graph application development Platform. If Facebook can navigate these two pitfalls, Timeline could become the richest way to represent one’s identity online.