Facebook Places Explained

20th Aug, 2010

Yesterday, or very late Wednesday night depending on how you see it, Facebook announced the roll out of its new Facebook Places service. I thought it might be worth waiting for the dust to settle and give the service as in-depth a look as possible, as it’s not yet available in Europe and no launch date is known.

What is Facebook Places?

It’s a location based feature that allows people to ‘check-in’ to real locations using their iPhone (other phones will be supported in due course). So if I go to a bar, restaurant or even a beach and ‘check in’ my Facebook friends know where I am. I can also check to see who else is using the service in that location – both friends and strangers. Although, this information will only be available to those at the location for a limited time. The official Facebook Blog states that this allows people with similar interests to meet up. Although you can opt out of such a service it’s worth noting that a lot of studies into the use of social networks indicate that only a small percentage of users actually want to meet new people. This takes Facebook stalking (where you check out peoples profiles that you are not friends with such as former classmates, colleagues and ex’s) into the real world. Also, I would assume you will know nothing of other people at your location if they have their profiles locked down to strangers.

You can also tag yourself and your friends into a location, handy if they don’t use Facebook mobile, also handy if the location is a business as these ‘tags’ of visitors will appear on their page. You can opt out of friends tagging you into places, but you can’t remove your tag from a business page. Might be worth remembering if you are ment to be elsewhere.

Have we Seen This Before?

Yes, we have had location based services before such as Foursquare and Gowalla. Even if you look at the logo for Facebook Places (above) it’s a ‘four’ in a ‘square’. With the growth in mobile smart phone users it was only a matter of time before Facebook joined in. There are a few differences of course. Foursquare had a gaming element where each check in earned you points and with enough check-ins you become ‘Mayor’ of that location. Visitors can also make suggestions, which were tips and reviews of locations. One headline from yesterdays Brand Channel asked is ‘Facebook now the Mayor of Foursquare?’. Many commentators believe so. To put it in an Irish context Foursquare has an estimated 25,000 here, not an awful lot when compared with the amount of people using Facebook on their mobile, estimated to be somewhere 450,000 and 500,000. Once launched here Facebook Places will dwarf Foursquare and it’s loyal following.

This is the problem for any social network competitor. Facebook are so huge that with any new service they have enough time to develop their own version, and roll it out across their entire 500 million + network before the original service is even known outside of geek-tech circles.

But early reports suggest Facebook Places is a more stripped down version of Foursquare. It has no gaming element nor the ability to leave suggestions for locations, although these will be added by 3rd party developers in the future. Also you can’t block check-in notices from appearing on your page, without disabling other status update types.

How is it Good for Facebook?

It enters Facebook into real time local search. This is the most compelling reason for local businesses to be on Facebook. After all if you are a local bar or restaurant being able to show how many people checked into your establishment will act as an endorsement for others to check out your business. Plus with check-ins getting pushed into newsfeed it’s another way for businesses to reach out virally. But with access to peoples demographic and geographic data, advertising that is targeted to users in very specific locations could be used. For now Facebook are saying they have no intentions of monetising the service. In Facebooks long term strategy creating greater buy in of its services and deepening its engagement with users is its competitive advantage. As it adds layers of new services for users, it’s increasing our dependence on the network, and creating switching barriers that make it harder for competitors, be they Foursquare or Google.

What Does it Mean for Real World Places?

From what I can gather if a business doesn’t use Facebook but is added as a location by any places user, then a page is generated for that place. This opens up some interesting points for local businesses to ensure they have a page they remain in control of. While pages created in this way have to be verified by the actual owner, it does mean if a business isn’t on Facebook by now someone else will more than likely put them there. Also businesses will have to check have they been entered into Facebook Places correctly and that multiple profiles don’t exist for them. For example misspellings, shortened names, nicknames, missing ‘The’ at the beginning – this could make a busy business look not so busy as check-ins and activity occurs on multiple pages.

Facebook Places was put into more emotional terms by the vice president of product at Facebook, Christopher Cox, who explained these check ins would serve as a collective memory, lasting over time “Those stories are going to be pinned to a physical location so that maybe one day in 20 years our children will go to Ocean Beach in San Francisco, and their little magical thing will start to vibrate and say, ‘This is where your parents first kissed.” This may seem a bit overly sentimental, but pages for places will exist even if those places close. Which could make for interesting reading in the future. Be it the night-club we spent too much of our youth in or something a bit more significant that disappears unexpectedly perhaps through a terrorist attack, accident or natural disaster. The meetings and interactions that occurred in that place will exist and will be accessible, albeit online.

And for Marketing?

Much like the apps we see on Facebook at present that pull information from our profile to operate, new apps will be developed specifically for location. The Facebook API is open to developers to create new apps that will combine what existing information Facebook has with our actual location to provide us with new services. It’s very early days but if you think about the potential that exists when all this information is combined, it’s going to be a very interesting time. Especially for actual high street businesses. After years of the internet moving sales online, this now puts a focus on real world locations.

What About Privacy?

This is been a very thorny issue for Facebook, the company was at the centre of a privacy storm earlier in the year, eventually resulting in new privacy controls. I also thought it was quiet odd that Eric Schmidt. Google CEO, would choose this week to say that people are putting too much of their lives online, even suggesting young people will have to change their names in the future to get away from their online past. If we are putting too much online then adding locations we visit, with no option to remove our check-ins from places, is certainly dangerous. This means once checked in we have no control over places we visit or didn’t visit but someone tagged us there. This will be an issue, but something that should be easy to rectify.

Facebook has included the options of sharing our check in information just with friends, or friends of friends or everyone. This is one setting that might need a more neatly defined group. ‘Facebook friends’ is a much more loosely defined group of people when compared with real world friends. I mean who do you actually want to share your location with? This may put people off using Places for fear of sharing just too much information or simply not wishing to be found. The American Civil Liberties Union have already produced a privacy guide to Places.

While there are some opt outs for over 18’s, under 18’s will not be allowed check in.

Will People use Facebook Places?

In a word, Yes. From the users perspective being able to browse offers, deals and information near your  location could prove to be very useful. Added to this the potential for chance meetings with friends and Facebook Places could demonstrate real value to users. After all, how often have you been out and by chance bumped into friends who were also out. Places would increase the possibility of those chance meetings. If the service can add that kind of value, in helping to create real world social interaction, then take up and long-term use of it could be very high. Although initially I can see higher take up amongst younger users (18 – 25) than older users.

The biggest drawback is privacy. However as demonstrated earlier this year in the middle of the biggest attack on Facebook in terms of negative PR, the company still managed to add 50 million users to it’s network.

As with all things there’s a novelty element, and of the half a million or so Irish people using Facebook on their mobile, most probably will ‘dip in’ when the service launches here. It’s how often they return that will determine the long term success for Facebook Places.