How 'Facebook Places' Will Make Location Services Boring

Facebook's aggressive entry into the emerging location business will mainstream the technology, transforming it into something commonplace and expected.
Posted August 18, 2010

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

Facebook Places, the social network's answer to the growing popularity of location-based services, will neither "kill Foursquare" (as some pundits have suggested) nor thrill users with a breathtaking new way to socialize.

It will do much more than that: Facebook's aggressive entry into the location business will simply mainstream the technology, transforming it into something ubiquitous, commonplace and expected.

You know a technology has arrived when nobody talks about it anymore.

In the 1980s, everybody was super excited about "multimedia." In the 1990s, major companies actually issued press releases announcing that they now had sites on the "World Wide Web!"

New technology moves so fast that it seems to move from threatening/thrilling future to a boring and obvious feature we all feel entitled to, without any time in between where something is new and we all enjoy and appreciate it.

The vast majority of potential users -- and certainly the overwhelming majority of current Facebook users -- have never used services that identify and broadcast their current location. Despite massive press in the past two years, location services are mainly used by early adopter types, self-appointed social media gurus and annoying technology columnists.

Regular people view location-based services with a mix of fear, confusion and distain. And that's what Facebook is likely to change. As Facebook bakes location into everyday Facebook functions, expect user opinion to move quickly from OMG to BFD -- from suspicion to resignation.

In addition to building location features into Facebook standbys like status updates, messages and photos, Facebook will encourage other companies to use new programming interfaces to build their own location apps into Facebook. In other words, they'll invite a thousand companies to compete with Foursquare using Facebook as the location platform. For Foursquare itself, as well as its many competitors, the Facebook initiative will do little more than provide even more validation for the category than Google and other major companies have already provided.

Foursquare is the leader of the category; Facebook will make the category huge. Facebook Places might be the best thing that ever happened to Foursquare.

Why You'll 'Like' Facebook Places

Facebook Places allows Foursquare-like "check-ins." In the future, I believe it's likely that Facebook will add the "Like" concept currently used all over the Web to locations in the real world.

A Like button will tell the world that we like our current location -- the Facebook version of a Foursquare "check-in." We'll be able to specify the exact location from a drop-down menu, just like in Foursquare using a listing of nearby businesses and locations. The "Like" concept will serve as a launching pad into user-generated restaurant reviews, travel recommendations and other location-based opinions.

For the most part, however, Facebook will drag its 500 million users into the location trend by quietly adding location info to everything, especially status updates, messages and photos.

Status updates for many will simply (and optionally) append location -- something like: "Eating a cheesburger! PLACE: McDonald's in downtown Dallas," with the "Place" added automatically. If Facebook is smart, they'll offer locations that aren't location-based -- for example, enabling people to say they're home without telling anywhere where home is.

When someone sends you a note, it will probably reveal the location of the sender, which is surprisingly appealing (If you're a Gmail user, you can get that feature now using a plug-in called Rapportive.)

In short, we can expect all the existing uses for location-based services (check-ins, games, friend-finding, etc.) to show up in Facebook, plus some Facebook-specific applications.

One of the interesting and possibly negative outcomes of Facebook Places may be that opportunities for stalking and privacy violation will be magnified. Facebook has extended the tagging concept to places, meaning that someone else can "tag" you at some location, although you can reject the tagging. But even if tagging is declined, it's still a privacy risk.

If junior doesn't announce his location, parents will be able to just check his friends' pages. Innocent location-based "Like" posts may accidentally reveal to bosses, spouses, parents, children, friends and co-workers one's location at times when its better to keep such information private. (Boss: "I see you enjoyed the beach yesterday -- didn't you call in sick?"). Facebook is already central to a growing number of divorce cases -- location may accelerate the trend.

That's the pessimist user view. The optimist customer view (Facebook's customers are advertisers, not users) is that aggregating user activity tells oh, so much more about users than mere location.

If Steve and Janet both "Like" a location, it doesn't tell you much. If both Steve and Janet check into to multiple locations over time, it reveals a social connection even if they're not "Friends" on Facebook. If Steve and Janet check into the location of a public park, along with 10,000 other people, then advertisers know they attended a scheduled concert there. Cross-matching that information with events databases tells advertisers that Steve and Janet like Bluegrass music - and also probably bourbon.

Neither Steve nor Janet will likely make the connection between clicking "Like" for the park and ads on Facebook for Maker's Mark bourbon. But Facebook knows that they're far more likely to respond to Kentucky booze than average users, and so can exact a premium price for the ad.

All of this is perfectly inevitable, of course. I mentioned in this space recently that Google will be going after Facebook with everything it's got, integrating many of its strengths into a social network called Google Me. In that column, listed six areas where Facebook is vulnerable to the Google onslaught: contacts, privacy, segregation of social networks, gaming, events and search. Facebook will be slaughtered by Google if it doesn't sprinkle location pixie dust onto all of these offerings -- because Google will.

Facebook is finally getting serious about location services. But Facebook Places won't "change the world" as much as it will change user expectations about location. Today, location services are exciting, scary, annoying, confusing and filled with promise. But soon enough, thanks to Facebook and its half a billion users, location will be just another feature so ubiquitous that it's not even worth talking about.

Tags: Facebook, Social Networking Tools, GPS, location based, location services

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