2010 is the year of location—at least in blogs focused on social networking, which is a Montana-sized "at least"—and Facebook's entry into the increasingly crowded field has long been expected. Today, the company officially announced its plans, by the name of Facebook Places. Oddly, Facebook Places is not exactly competing with the similarly named Google Places, though both incorporate the idea of location. In keeping with the individual ethoses of the two companies, Facebook Places is based on social interaction, while Google Places is essentially a search utility.
Facebook Places is, like Foursquare and Gowalla (more on that later), a check-in service. Users will use the Places feature in their smartphone app of choice (iPhone is first, others will come soon) to mark their current location. They can then tag anyone with them as well as see a list of friends who are nearby.
A user's location, whether that user has individually checked in or has been tagged, can be broadcast in a variety of places, including that user's news feed and the page of the location where the user has checked in.
Interestingly, the logical competitors of Places, notably Foursquare and Gowalla, were actually speakers at the event announcing the new Facebook product. Facebook evidently would rather have its competitors on board, integrating Foursquare's badge-collecting game into Places, than fighting with it on the outside. As far as Foursquare and Gowalla are concerned, they're gaining half a billion possible users—they can't beat Facebook, so they might as well join in.
Mere hours after the announcement, Facebook Places is already attracting significant debate on its level of privacy control. The product manager of Facebook Places, Michael Sharon, says:
"This is not a service to broadcast your location at all times, but rather one to share where you are, who you are with, when you want to. It lets you find friends that are nearby and help you discover nearby places."
The issue of privacy is paramount here. Facebook has already gotten flack seemingly every few months for various privacy indiscretions or difficulties, both real and perceived, and a location-based feature has the potential to be the most invasive aspect of Facebook ever. The ACLU posted a warning that Places does not offer, in its view, adequate privacy measures. Says the ACLU:
Places allows your friends to tag you when they check in somewhere, and Facebook makes it very easy to say "yes" to allowing your friends to check in for you. But when it comes to opting out of that feature, you are only given a "not now" option (aka ask me again later). "No" isn’t one of the easy options.
And if you use Places yourself, you aren’t even given a "not now;" you’re just told that friends are able to check-in for you and left to discover for yourself that you can change this setting by digging into your privacy controls.
The ACLU goes on to say that users "don't have full control" over who can see them on a list of nearby people, limited to either "all" or "none." Those are legitimate concerns despite Facebook's evident attempt to make the service as privacy-friendly as possible. Facebook's blog entry goes into some detail on the levels of privacy that were included, allowing for untagging and opt-in for all applications.
If you're a bit paranoid about privacy, it's probably smart to just steer clear of publishing your location on the Internet to begin with.
Facebook Places is available now for Apple's iPhone, though users of other smartphone platforms can use the functions by going to Facebook's touch-oriented site. Presumably, the feature will soon make its way to Android, WebOS, Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry.