How to live with the Facebook Timeline (because you have no choice)

Jan. 25, 2012 at 10:45 AM ET

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You can pout and you can shout, but there's no avoiding it: You'll soon be forced to use a new profile page design — better known as the Timeline — on Facebook. It'll be alright though, because I'm here to (virtually) hold your hand through this big life change.

Woah! Wait! What is this Timeline thing?

Odds are that you've already heard about the Facebook Timeline, but let's have a quick review for the sake of those who might've been on a really long vacation or have a (dangerous) tendency to tune out Facebook-related news.

The Facebook Timeline is a new approach to the profile page. According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, it's a way to better present "the story of your life."

When someone looks at your Timeline, he or she will be able to see summaries of the most important events in your personal history — instead of having to scroll through years of silly status updates. You're able to feature (or hide) "Stories" — life events, images, and other details — in order to create what you feel is the best representation of your life.

Since your personal history no longer starts with the day you joined Facebook, but the date of your actual birth, you are encouraged to go back and add events which weren't previously on Facebook. Please choose what you enter with absolute care, and bear in mind that what you enter (ahem, place of birth, mother's maiden name) could be used for nefarious purposes.

While a lifelong timeline may seem convenient and logical, our own privacy-minded Helen Popkin said this may be "the ultimate Trojan horse," a way for Facebook to squeeze even more personal information out of you by posing as an unrequested but alluring feature.

Oh, and you can also augment your Timeline by using apps which track books you've read, movies you've watched, music you've listened to, and so on. (Yeah, this can get a bit creepy — so you'll probably want to fiddle with your privacy settings. More on that later.)

I don't really want this! How do I avoid it?

As I said when we started our journey down the Timeline rabbit hole: You can pout and shout as much as you want, but there's no avoiding Timeline.

As Paul McDonald, an engineering manager on the Timeline team, explained recently:

Over the next few weeks, everyone will get timeline. When you get timeline, you'll have 7 days to preview what's there now. This gives you a chance to add or hide whatever you want before anyone else sees it. ... 

 You can also choose to publish your timeline at any time during the review period. If you decide to wait, your timeline will go live automatically after seven days. Your new timeline will replace your profile, but all your stories and photos will still be there.

A warning whistle, a seven-day head start, and ... that's it, that's all you're getting. If anyone is trying to convince you that there's a loophole or a way to outsmart Facebook on this particular issue, odds are that he or she is trying to scam you.

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Fine. I'll live with this somehow, but can I at least hold on to my privacy?

As Lifehacker's Whitson Gordon points out, the "one big downside to the Timeline layout is that you can easily see every post you've ever made or received on Facebook. All anyone needs to do is go to a certain year on your profile and click the "All Posts" button."

Yes, that particular downside could lead to quite a bit of embarrassing moments, awkward confrontations, and so on.

Thankfully there are two ways to minimize humiliation. Neither of them is particularly perfect, but they help a bit.

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As tedious as it is, you could go through your Timeline and hide (or delete) individual posts. All you have to do is click the little pencil icon on a post and you'll be presented with the different options.

Of course, this process could take forever and a day if you're a particularly active Facebook user. (I told you it wasn't perfect.)

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The other action you can take to prevent some embarrassment involves the posts which are visible to the general public or friends of friends. You can change the privacy setting for all of those posts to "friends only" with just one click. 

You just have to head to the "Privacy Settings" menu, select the "Manage Past Post Visibility" button next to "Limit the Audience for Past Posts." You'll see a little popup which will confirm that you really want to limit the visibility of your old posts and you're done.

But, as Gordon notes, this particular move "won't hide those posts from your friends, but it will at least keep everyone else on Facebook from being able to browse every post you've ever made public."

Unfortunately that's about all you can do to shelter what little bit or privacy you have left when you're forced to switch over to the Timeline layout. You can — and should — be vigilant about what you post in the first place and what sort of state your general privacy settings are in though, of course. (For more details on that, I recommend checking out Lifehacker's "always up-to-date guide to managing your Facebook privacy.")

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New York Times columnist Nick Bilton gets creative with his Timeline cover image.

Can I at least make this thing look pretty?

One of the first things you'll notice about the Timeline is that it puts a gigantic photo front and center. This is called the "cover" photo and you're prompted to select one as soon as your profile is converted to this new design. (You can change the cover image as often as you want.)

You can use (or abuse) this feature to make your little corner of the social network look as unique as a snowflake.

Your decorating options include ready-made images — such as the geeky or intense illustrations artist Sam Spratt made available on BuzzFeed — or your own creations.

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Buzzfeed's Director of Creative Services Tanner Ringerud shows how a profile photo can interact with a cover image on Facebook.

If you're really itching to have a one-of-a-kind image, then the best thing to do is is to brainstorm until you find a way to make the large cover image interact with your profile photo. The only tricky part — aside from actually coming up with a clever idea — is that you need to keep the proportions of the images in mind to make sure that everything looks perfect.

So make note that the large cover image is 851 x 315 pixels and that the smaller profile photo is 125 x 125 pixels.

That's really all there is to it?

Yes, that's all you really need to know about the Facebook Timeline  — what it is, why you can't avoid it, how to keep it from embarrassing you, and how to make it look pretty.

Not so bad after all, right?

Now go on and pass this handy-dandy guide on to your confused friends and family members so that you can enjoy your last seven Timeline-free days in peace.

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