Whenever Facebook launches a new feature, it arrives heralded as another service's killer. Many claimed status updates, for instance, would mark the end of Twitter as we knew it. So much for that.
On Wednesday, the company unveiled Facebook Places, its first foray into location-based social networking. Soon the tech cognoscenti began wondering whether Facebook's "check in" feature would destroy similar geo-location services Gowalla and Fourquare. It won't. Here's why.
Like Foursquare and Gowalla, Facebook Places lets users "check in" via smartphone to show friends where they are, but it doesn't yet have the pizazz of its competitors. "Facebook is in this space because it needs to be—it validates geo-location," says Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare. "They now just have what we've been doing for years. Check-ins are not new. Check-ins are boring."
Gowalla CEO Josh Williams echoed Crowley's views. "Facebook's product has a plain-vanilla approach to showing where we are," he explained in an interview with Fast Company. "It's not going to change a whole lot for our users."
Still, the largest social network in the world just entered the geo-location space, and it brought 500 million users. Aren't these company chiefs worried about being swallowed up by Facebook? No, say Crowley and Williams. They believe their services are different, and that Facebook's larger user-base would become more attracted to their services.
They have a point. Facebook Places aggregates check-ins from across many services, so when a Foursquare user checks-in, for example, that check-in will also appear on Facebook (and eventually vice versa). "It's bringing us an opportunity to shine," says Williams.
"Facebook is teaching its 500 million users what location-based services are," Crowley highlights. "It's going to be much easier for us to tell the Foursquare story now, and just say 'we're kind of like Facebook Places, but more fun.'"
To some degree, as Gowalla and Foursquare integrate with Places, it will become harder to sustain their unique identities. After all, why would a Facebook member still use Gowalla or Foursquare if both services are available all in one place? According to Crowley and Williams, the trick is building a tight-knit and playful community on top of those check-ins. Users of their services earn rewards like stamps or badges for checking in to certain locations.
"We've seen larger services like Facebook, Twitter, and Google get involved in geo-location," the Gowalla CEO says. "They establish a base-line of expectation where our nuances are going to blossom. With our pins and stamps, our service has more history, like keeping the ticket stubs to a baseball game."
"It gets fun when you build on top of the check-in," says Crowley. "Our magic is in the tips, to-dos, badges, games, and mayors. Foursquare has a definition, a definitive personality and culture, that drives our growth."
Ultimately, will Foursquare and Gowalla be able to remain independent with so much integration? There are so many competitors in the space. Twitter and Facebook aggregate check-ins. They're both partnering with Facebook. Who is competing with whom? "If I sit down with my mom, I'm going to have a hard time explaining the difference," says Crowley. "It's like, Twitter adds location, so now is Twitter a friend or foe?"
"But all the services are used for different purposes. We benefit from the fact that the service is smaller, because the social graph is tighter. I don't want my check-in at a karaoke bar seen by my 1,000 Facebook friends. I want to check-in to my 40 Foursquare friends because those are the people I actually want to overlap with in real life."