Foursquare, Gowalla, Yelp and a bunch of other services have been rapidly innovating the GPS-smartphone based "check-in" gaming space, with Foursquare as the current leader thanks to popularity and some smart marketing tie-ins. But is all that about to change, with social network monster Facebook is rumored to be on the verge of launching its own location-based service?
We've suspected for a long time that Facebook would leap aboard the location-based gaming bandwagon: It's got every reason to, with its massive user base of 500 million souls, pre-built social networking technology and thirst for every similar new tech that comes its way. And because as the check-in game grew quickly into something that began to make money, Facebook—on the hunt for raw cash—was bound to perk up and pay attention.
Now Facebook's sent out invites to a press event on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. at its Silicon Valley HQ, and everyone is of the opinion that Facebook's location game time has arrived. And quite apart from any pondering over how many of Facebook's users will sign up to play, or how Facebook will develop a suitably simple mobile app to enable smartphone clients to play along (given that its premiere iPhone app has lain fallow for so very long), there are two important questions the news raises.
Firstly: What will this do to Foursquare and the location-game clan? The answer to this isn't straightforward. Each of the existing games is a solid performer, each with its own tricks and tropes, established user base, strong look and feel, and a particular character to the way the "game play" happens. Facebook is likely to slap its bland, flat blue user-interface and clunky control system onto its location game, and it'll just be another feature of the way Facebook works—like the status updates, or photos, or even in-Facebook apps like FarmVille. This may mean that Foursquare and its peers have an advantage, since when you're playing them it's obvious what you're up to, and the attractive qualities that keep you playing are evident. There's also some thinking that Facebook's location efforts will allow other companies' code to be integrated into their game, and though the exact mechanism for this will be key in determining if Facebook wipes the other companies out entirely, this is a good sign.
And then there's the biggest, thorniest matter Facebook's location gaming plans raise: Privacy. We know Mark Zuckerberg is on something of a mission to redefine what online privacy means (read—there isn't any) and his company has already stamped and trampled over the issue before, raising the wrath of users and several government entities. Location-based gaming is already a sensitive issue, as it can give away both your travel habits and absolute geographic location, opening clients up to all sorts of personal difficulties and criminal acts. But Facebook's user base includes many younger people and kids, a segment of society who're potentially more at risk of abuse than others, and the service is already under fire for enabling cases of cyber bullying—admittedly it's taken steps to minimize some of this, but the point is fair.
If Facebook does launch location-based systems, it's going to have to allow parental controls, it's going to have to be utterly clear that it's collecting and transmitting your location data—potentially exposing you to risk—and it's going to have to make it easy and safe to opt-out, both permanently and on an ad hoc basis. Considering the user-data leaks and thefts that have occurred on Facebook before, it's also going to have to protect your location data very carefully indeed. Because letting the world know exactly where you are through Facebook is as potentially dangerous as it is powerful, and the first lawsuit that is brought against Facebook for enabling bullying or, horrors, something like a revenge murder, is going to be very very messy. Location-based services may turn out to be Facebook's riskiest move yet.
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