3 key points you need to know about Facebook Timeline, gleaned from two previous "lifestreaming" products: FriendFeed and Memolane.

Facebook's new Timeline, currently in a limited developer release but set to be unveiled to its hundreds of millions of users any day now, is going to shake up the social networking landscape. It's going to bring lifestreaming - formally a geeky activity based around RSS feeds - to the mainstream. In my view, Timeline is the smartest and most significant thing Facebook has done since launching a developer platform in May 2007. I think it's that important.

So where did the inspiration for Timeline come from and why is it going to be such a big deal? We can see the future just by looking at two earlier lifestreaming products: FriendFeed and scrappy start Memolane.

Steve Jobs once famously said, quoting Picasso, that "good artists copy, great artists steal." Sure enough, as with most game-changing things on the Web, Timeline is not an original invention by Facebook. Although Timeline wasn't directly stolen from anyone, it was clearly influenced by FriendFeed and Memolane.

One of the strongest inspirations for Timeline came from within Facebook itself, in the form of a startup it acquired in August 2009: FriendFeed. Co-founded by Bret Taylor, who is now Facebook's Chief Technology Officer, FriendFeed was a social media aggregator that was much beloved by Web geeks.

FriendFeed was always far too geeky for mainstream users, however to his great credit Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spotted its potential. At the time Zuckerberg called FriendFeed "a simple and elegant service for people to share information." (emphasis ours) Well, two years later and it just so happens that sharing information is a key reason why Facebook is introducing Timeline.

Yes, Facebook's Timeline is ostensibly focused on an individual's personal history - kind of like an online diary. But that's really just a front for the real purpose of Timeline: to expose your entire content history to your friends and public subscribers.

It's not just the sharing that's key, it's making that content more social. ReadWriteWeb did one of the earliest interviews with FriendFeed's founders, Bret Taylor and Paul Buchheit, in February 2008. Something that Buchheit (who in the past had created Gmail for Google) said back then is more relevant than ever today, with Facebook's Timeline. Buchheit said that FriendFeed was "trying to go beyond simply aggregating to actually creating a pleasant social experience around the content." (emphasis ours)

So that's key point number 2 about Timeline: Facebook expects to make that content more social. That goal is supported by other Facebook initiatives this year, such as the real-time updates ticker and automated sharing from apps like Spotify and Washington Post.

Let's move now to a startup that wasn't acquired by Facebook, but which earlier this year launched a timeline service that is very close to what Facebook introduced later in the year. That startup's name is Memolane and we gave it a favorable review in January.

After Facebook announced its Timeline, Memolane CEO Eric Lagier tried to differentiate his service as a "Timeline of Your Life (more than just your Facebook posts)." Regardless of how Memolane is different from Facebook Timeline, he hit the nail on the head with his point that "time is the perfect tool to organize social media."

That's key point number 3 about Facebook Timeline: it organizes a lot of your social media activity, at least that which occurs on Facebook or on its third party partners like Spotify.

Incidentally, you have to feel for Memolane. An 800-pound gorilla just sat squarely on its little niche of the Web. Memoland is rather ominously "down for maintenance" as I write this, although its Twitter account reassures us that it is "preparing for some exciting things coming your way" this Tuesday. Here's hoping Memolane innovates itself into an exciting new direction with the timeline concept, because of course we love scrappy startups here at RWW.

Lifestreaming is Going Mainstream

There were many other products that Facebook probably took inspiration from for Timeline. Nokia Lifeblog and Six Apart's Vox are two that come to mind (to see how times have changed, read our mid-2006 analysis comparing Vox with Facebook). But the key points are clear from FriendFeed and Memolane:

  1. Timeline is all about sharing personal content.
  2. Timeline is also about making that personal content much more social than it is on your old Facebook profiles.
  3. That's because a timeline is a highly effective way to organize social media content (making it easier to like, comment on and re-share).

The over-riding lesson from Facebook Timeline is that lifestreaming is going mainstream. At the beginning of this year, digital design consultancy Fjord predicted this would happen: "in 2011 we will see increasing numbers of people uploading aspects of their life to the cloud. They'll be able to combine this across multiple online services, generating meaning from data already online."

Of course Fjord wasn't to know that Facebook would implement Timeline and effectively position itself as the center of a huge trend. Which is what Facebook Timeline has done and why Facebook - and lifestreaming - is going to be very big.