Profiles, the original beating heart of Facebook, were pushed to the side in 2006 by the more addictive News Feed. But profiles remain a tremendously popular part of the social network — they are viewed a cumulative 4 billion times a day, the company says. In recent years, Facebook has been cautious about modifying the way they look and feel. But today profiles are getting a significant redesign — and the result is a page that's less about what you want to share, and more about what your friends want to see.
The new profile, which was first spotted in the wild this summer, puts a large profile photo front and center. The biggest departure from the current product, which is now in testing: looping "profile videos" of up to seven seconds that add a new dimension to the design. It's a big thing that sounds like a small thing, and it's big because for the first time, Facebook is asking users to get creative with their profiles.
Looping profile videos of up to seven seconds add a new dimension
Facebook employees have been making profile videos for a while, and many of them are disarmingly cute: faces surrounded by puppies, peering through bushes, or having their hair blown back by a ridiculous fan. Video profiles aren't required — you can stick with a static image — but I expect that they'll become enormously popular, assuming they become available to everyone. (The videos are now being tested among small groups in the United States and the United Kingdom.)
Facebook will also now let you set a temporary profile photo that automatically reverts back to the old one after a specified length of time. Maybe you want to show yourself wearing your favorite sports team's shirt on the day of a big game. Maybe you want to modify your profile to show support for a cause in the news, as when people applied a rainbow filter to their profile pictures to show support for same-sex marriage. Or maybe you want to let people know you are on vacation by adding the text "vacation mode" to a profile of yourself in the ocean. (This is an example Facebook used with me!)
Other changes are more philosophical
The more philosophical changes to the profile come below the photo. Until now, you've seen your friend's recent check-ins, news about who they've recently befriended, and your mutual friends, if any. Scroll a little lower and you found a carousel with your friend's "About" section, along with links to their photos and friends. These sections were all relatively small, and as a result you could scroll quickly to your friend's posts. The old profiles emphasized posts over all but the profile photo — posts were larger than anything else there.
The new profile asks you to write a short bio of yourself ("Mom, wife, growth hacker. Coffee addict!"), and supports the use of emoji. Next comes the "About" field, which tells people where you live, work, go to school, and so on. And then come photos: instead of the previous small square link, they're now a full-bleed section unto themselves, where they may now be more easily perused by thirsty randos. (Assuming the photos are public, of course — the box respects your privacy settings.) Facebook gives you control over which photos display here: you can choose to "feature" a handful of them. Beneath your featured photos, there's another photos section, featuring your most recent pictures. And then, underneath that, there's a full-bleed section showing your friends. Only after that do posts on your Timeline begin showing up.
At Facebook, major design changes like these are driven by data. And while the company wouldn't share any data with me, I'm sure that its data showed the majority of times someone looks at your profile, it's because they want to see pictures of you, find out where you live or work, and see which friends you have in common. (This describes roughly 95 percent of my own visits to profiles.) And yet I wonder if the things Facebook has chosen to highlight about you in its redesigned profile are the things you would choose to highlight about yourself.
Are these the things you would choose to share with your friends?
Many of the photos that are taken of us, or that we are tagged in, are not how we would wish to present ourselves to the world. (Facebook would say, just hide those photos using privacy settings! And I'd say, why does managing my Facebook privacy settings still feel like a part-time job?) A list of our friends is not likely something we would broadcast ahead of our most recent status update, or an article we found interesting, or an interesting place we visited. But the redesigned profile puts that list above all those things, probably because data shows that's what your friends really want to see. Your profile is now less about what you want, and more about what your friends want.
I asked two Facebook product managers about the decision. "We're just trying to balance out the information that might be more important to people when they're visiting profiles," Aryeh Selekman told me. Certainly every design like this requires emphasizing one thing over another thing, and it's reasonable to let the data inform your choices. But it's easy to gather data about what people want to see when they visit your profile, and harder to measure what you want those people to see.
The new options for self-expression in the profile are a lot of fun — maybe the most fun Facebook has ever let you have with your profile. They make the profile feel to me like it always has — like a broadcast message to your friends. But scroll down a bit and it's a different story: Your profile is now a tool built for enjoyment by the curious. You may object to the changes, even as you find they have made Facebook more useful when you look up people yourself. And Facebook can fall back on the rationale of the age: We are only listening to the data.
Verge Video: More changes coming to Facebook