Facebook Places: What It Is, What It Isn't, And Why It May Change The World

Today Facebook revealed its long-anticipated geolocation offering called “Places.” In many respects, Facebook’s offering doesn’t expand on the functionality you can find in current location-based services such as foursquare — you can check in at a place, share your location with friends, see who is nearby, and add a place.  In fact, the most important contribution Facebook is making to the geolocation social space is not in form but scale.  While foursquare counts around 2.5 million users in its base, Facebook has 500 million.  This means that Facebook is positioned to introduce the benefits of location sharing to a new and much wider audience.

Of course, providing users with a new feature is one thing, but getting them to adopt a new sort of social behavior is another.  Facebook has done much to ease the adoption process for users, starting with some smart decisions about privacy.  It is evident that Facebook has learned from past privacy missteps.  By default, when users check into a place, this information will only be shared with friends and not the whole world.  This reflects a different and more user-centric approach than Facebook has taken in the past. 

Of course, it's nearly impossible to launch any new social feature without some level of privacy concern, and it remains to be seen whether users will like or dislike the fact that they can be checked in by their friends.  Facebook says this is intended as an advantage — since not every person has an advanced smartphone, not every Facebook user can check himself or herself into a location for the time being;  by allowing people to check in their friends, more Facebook users can participate.  People can turn off the ability for friends to check them in, but by default this is permitted. 

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Watch Facebook's Announcement Here At 5 PM PDT Today

If you're interested in Facebook's announcement this evening, you can watch the proceedings live here on the Forrester blog at 5 pm PDT.

The social media world is abuzz.  Take one hot trend (geolocation) and add one blazing hot social network with a history of privacy missteps (Facebook), and you have the making for an interesting news story. 

That's not the only reason curiosity is high about tonight's event--there's also a lot of money involved.  While consumer adoption of geolocation check-in via services like foursquare and Gowalla is still nascent, there is little doubt that consumers will increasingly share their location via social networks.  They share their profiles (who), their activities (what) and their hopes and wishes (why), so why not the "where"?  And this data becomes yet another piece of the puzzle for advertisers wishing to build promotions, loyalty programs and more personalized and targeted advertising.

Then, of course, there's the foursquare vs. Facebook angle, which I expect will disappoint those looking for a battle royale between the heavyweight champ (Facebook with 500 million users) and the young upstart (foursquare with 2.5 million users).  Facebook seems less likely to launch a "foursquare killer" and more likely to create a geolocation platform upon which others might build.  Think of it this way:  Facebook doesn't create social games, but instead creates the platform on which third-party social games thrive.  Despite the Facebook vs. foursquare hype, the two are likely to end up more complementary than competitive.

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