Facebook’s new location-based check-in game Places is U.S. only, for weak but relatively sensible reasons (to do with building up a core locations database for global locations of interest). But Facebook is a truly global entity, with its 500 million users distributed pretty much around the entire planet–with a few notable exceptions–and so keeping Places as an American affair at first is a bit of a thumbed-nose to the rest of the world. Except for those enterprising folks from overseas locations who’ve been gaming the system and using virtual private nets based in the U.S. to access Places from their home nation.
Several reports are showing that Facebookers from as far afield as Australia are using VPNs as a sneaky way past Facebook’s IP-based geolocking on its Places services on the iPhone app and through touch.facebook.com. It’s simple: All you do is sign up for a U.S. hosted VPN, route your connection that way, and since your outgoing IP address now appears to be American to Facebook, you can use the system. Your location can then be established by GPS on your smartphone, and you can begin “playing” since Facebook doesn’t check your location is inside the U.S. The density of overseas users gaming the system is pretty low, so the “playing” competitive aspect of Places is not going to be the same, but that doesn’t seem to matter to these intrepid location-fans.
It’s a big plus for Facebook that there’s this much enthusiasm, of course. And it’s a sign that maybe the company needs to start thinking less like an American business, and more like a global one (assuming hard-headed Mark Zuckerberg can be persuaded, that is). But there’s a big question looming over the potential success of Places in the short to medium term: Are people really excited about sharing their location in huge numbers?
This issue has popped up before, but Facebook’s entry to the market, tied with its historic “screw you!” attitude of not caring about user privacy, has reignited the debate. Because systems like Foursquare are careful enough to only let you share your location with a small group of people, should you choose to be wary. And while Facebook’s places can be set up in this way, it may be fiddly to deal with Facebook’s famously labyrinthine privacy settings–particularly if you have a huge network of friends and acquaintances on Facebook.
The way to think about the matter is like this: Even though the average person has no pressing need to “hide” their location from anyone, many people may have good reasons to do so for at least some of the time, and then they’d be rightly shy of using Places. And would you care to tell your IT-enabled burglar that you’re not at home? One assertion, based on this thinking, is that the majority of people who may use Facebook won’t use Places, which actually limits the power of the system. In fact, when the phenomenon gets “old”, and you lose the excitement of “checking-in”, Facebook and services like Gowalla are going to have to think about models like Google’s Latitude, which is a permanent location-broadcaster. And with Facebook’s reputation, many users may be wary of playing the game like that.
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