Will Facebook’s new storytelling tools write a happy ending?

For some time now I’ve been asserting that technology is teaching us to be human again. When I say this, I mean that the ability to witness and experience the lives of others anywhere around the world, often in real-time, awakens in us our innate empathy for each other. There are many recent examples including the earthquake in Haiti, the Pakistan floods, the tornadoes in Joplin and the tsunami in Japan both in the way that the world watched these natural disasters unfold as they happened and in the way that we could respond with donations just as quickly.

In the political sphere the examples are just as plentiful when you consider the Arab Spring Revolutions that have spread through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and beyond, through to citizen activism of all types including the crowd-sourcing of a new constitution currently underway in Iceland to the Occupy Together movement in the U.S. protesting against unfair Wall Street practices.

It is in this context that I want to share some thoughts on what Facebook unveiled last week at its F8 developer conference, because they enabled each of us to become even more effective storytellers that will change they way we relate to brands, to politicians and each other.

Initially, Facebook and the other social networks that followed it, gave largely voiceless citizens and customers a platform by which to share a little bit more about ourselves and connect more readily with others. Over time such connectivity grew to effectively reweave the social fabric between citizens and politicians, and brands and their customers. But with the introduction of new features such as Timeline released last week, Facebook has armed us with everything we need to become powerful storytellers that can shape the brands we support, persuade politicians seeking office, and build a world we want to live in. As the team at Facebook explained themselves:

“The way your profile works today, 99% of the stories you share vanish.  Now, timeline allows you to create a multifaceted and creative self-portrait that becomes a home for the story you want to tell about yourself and what you want to share with others.”

As such, Facebook is tapping into something that advertisers have always known – the true currency of advertising is emotion, and that emotion is communicated through storytelling that creates a connection between a brand and its customer. So what Facebook has done by launching Timeline is to upgrade the ability of regular citizens and customers to become more persuasive communicators about who we are, what we care about, and the change we want to see in the world. What’s more Facebook also gave us the new ability to use apps to update our storytelling in real-time, ensuring we never need lose touch with our readers, listeners, supporters or community.

Such new tools are not without their drawbacks, though, in the minds of many users. Strong privacy complaints persist, as explored by Brian Solis and Charlene Li, as many people note that the more we share, the more personal information and content Facebook gets to own. This is a delicate balancing act being performed by Facebook as many users refuse to connect if it comes at the cost of their privacy, yet it is also the responsibility of users to manage what they share and their privacy settings.

Ultimately this tension between storytelling and privacy will have a powerful impact on how culturally transformative social media will be and which social networks survive. I have always felt that social networks, in some way, serve as the digital equivalent of the village well or campfire through which people shared what was meaningful to them through the stories that they told. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO stated as much saying, “Today, we are a platform for storytelling and bringing people together around stories that matter to them.”

It would be a tragic loss if the very platforms that give citizens and customers a powerful voice for much needed social change were rendered ineffective due to confusing, complicated or competing privacy or ownership issues. Our future will be shaped by the stories we tell, and social networks such as Facebook and tools such as Timeline and Ticker have the capacity to serve as important tools for social transformation. The future is something we all own and share, and social networks have the potential to play an historic role in shaping a brighter tomorrow if a balance is maintained that respects the interests of everyone.

Do you believe privacy concerns and ownership concerns ruin the new Facebook features? Or do you believe these new features are appropriate for a world in which everyone lives in public?