Why Facebook Places Will Make Foursquare into a Footnote

8/19/10Follow @wroush

If Facebook is doing location, then location must finally be real.

I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way. I think that’s actually the most important takeaway from the introduction of Facebook Places last night, at a media event I attended at the social networking giant’s Palo Alto headquarters.

The new feature allows people accessing Facebook from iPhones or location-aware Web browsers to, among other things, “check in” with Facebook, sharing their current locations and seeing which friends have checked in nearby. To users of location-based mobile apps from companies like Foursquare, Gowalla, Yelp, Booyah, and SCVNGR, that’s nothing new. But even the largest of these startups have no more than a few million users. Facebook has half a billion, including 150 million in the United States, where Facebook Places will be rolled out first. As PlacePop CEO Kent Lindstrom put it at last month’s Geo-Loco conference in San Francisco: “The first week they launch check-ins, [Facebook] will have more check-ins than any other service in the history of geolocation…Having two million users on Foursquare becomes irrelevant in that scenario.”

Well, that’s this week. Now, I’m not saying that Facebook Places will put Foursquare et al. out of business overnight. I’m sure that engineers and product managers at those companies are already scrambling to figure out how to differentiate their services from Facebook’s, and how to keep the check-ins rolling on their own networks. They may stave off the inevitable for a while—perhaps in part by connecting to Facebook’s own geolocation framework, which, in effect, makes a Gowalla or Yelp check-in into a Facebook check-in. Indeed, uncomfortable-looking representatives from Gowalla, Foursquare, Booyah, and Yelp were all brought on stage last night to gush mechanically about how “excited” they were to be working with Facebook.

But the truth is that all of these smaller services have been riding on a wave of novelty and early-adopter enthusiasm. There may be a passing thrill to displacing your buddy as the mayor of your local Starbucks on Foursquare, collecting fancy passport stamps on Gowalla, or “buying” your favorite hangouts on Booyah’s MyTown. But what then? None of these applications relate very well to users’ real-world goals and activities. They don’t make the things people already do any easier.

Places feature on Facebook's updated iPhone appFacebook is another matter. After years of futile resistance, I’ve become a begrudging convert to Facebook. Why? Because the sheer, snowballing mass of its community has made it into the best forum for certain social activities, such as sharing photos, links, and status updates. Just as Google has the best technologies for searching the Web or sending e-mail or finding something on a map, and Twitter has the best network for sharing 140-character bon mots, Facebook has the best mechanisms for keeping abreast of your friends’ lives. Unlike winning the “Crunked” badge on Foursquare (the award for checking in at four different bars in one night), that’s a priority that ranks pretty high on the lists of everyone but agoraphobes and misanthropes.

One of the most important things people want to know about their friends is where they are and where they’ve been. And so those are two of the central features of Facebook Places. When you go to the Places tab of the new Facebook iPhone application or the smartphone-friendly version of its website (touch.facebook.com), you’ll see the “Place Page” for your current location—in my case, for example, Xconomy San Francisco. If you don’t see a place that matches your actual location, you can create one. Then you can a) check in at that location, creating an item that shows up in your friends’ news feeds and on the place page, and b) see who else has checked in there recently.

The list of recent check-ins is time-limited, so there’s a good chance that people you see on the list are still at your location, giving you the opportunity to seek them out. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the media event that he knew the Places feature was ready for release when he took his girlfriend to a Menlo Park restaurant and she used it to discover that Facebook vice president of product Chris Cox and his fiancée were also dining there.

Geolocation, in other words, is a natural fit with Facebook’s existing purpose. The company certainly gets no points for originality, given that … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.sarahwallace.com Sarah Wallace

    Since Foursquare and Gowalla are working in collaboration with Facebook, I think they will be just as busy but probably more on the backend of things. I’m sure Facebook appreciates that these apps already have an established system of badges and mayorships. Facebook has entered the geolocation space on friendly terms.

  • http://www.xconomy.com Bill Ghormley

    Catalytic article, Wade — but the on-off switch on this!?! Sorry for the attack of technophobia, but –
    Does the device owner have true control over the “here I am” signal?
    I am sure there are those who don’t want their location known because they want simple privacy, even an occasional dose of anonymity.
    What can they do if their phone becomes a homing device, knowingly or not? (;->

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  • http://www.mikedesjardins.net Mike Desjardins

    Doesn’t being first to market still count for something?

    How many more users does Google have than Twitter? Yet when the 500 lb gorilla launched Buzz with a lot of fanfare, there wasn’t much uptake. I don’t know anyone who is still using it.

    It’s still very possible (even likely) that Facebook will screw up on execution, fail to get many users using the new feature, and 4sq and Gowalla will continue to thrive, just as Twitter does despite the big players trying to enter their space.

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  • http://www.MyProspectHill.com RC Lations @ MyProspectHill

    Great comments here.

    I get your point, Wade, but I think you’re oversimplifying the market. You could have said the same thing that facebook chat would kill all other chat applications. Instead, the result was a poorly-executed, buggy application that still resides in facebook but most people dislike. That example speaks to two things – facebook’s execution is crucial to their success, and that they won’t necessarily kill their competition just by introducing their own version into the market.

    Mike Desjardins has the right idea and started to touch on the fact that as the early bird, foursquare has spent several years developing trust in the marketplace. Location-based capabilities pose a huge security concern to the layman user, which represents most of fb’s user base. They’ve tried their best so far to introduce proper security features, but they aren’t exactly the most trustworthy company these days in the eyes of their user base.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Sarah — Friendly, yes, but it’s the friendliness of a dog offered an ice cream cone. He can’t take one lick, he has to chomp the whole thing.

    @Bill, @RC Lations — I agree that the privacy aspects are the biggest potential stumbling block for Facebook Places. Bill, to answer your question, there is an off switch; or rather a whole series of options between “never show my location” and “always share my location with everybody.” The ACLU of Northern California has done a good, preliminary job of summarizing how to pick your location privacy settings here: http://dotrights.org/facebook-places-your-friends-are-here-what-about-your-privacy.

    @Mike — You’re right, execution is everything, and it’s only day two, and there’s a lot of room for Facebook to screw up. But if the location features are even half as successful as their photo sharing and tagging features, that will be huge.

    @RC Lations — On trust. Yes, I think Foursquare has the trust of its users, but there are only 2 or 3 million of them. The way I see it, that’s not nearly enough to hold back the tide of people who are about to have their first experience of location-based networking through Facebook Places.

  • http://www.carolerford.com/ Fresno Financial Advisor

    Great! But what if you have a Blackberry or Android phone?

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Fresno — Good question, and I forgot to mention this in my column. Zuckerberg said the company wants Places to work across all mobile platforms, so you can assume that they’ll roll it out for Android, Blackberry, and other geo-enabled mobile devices as fast as they can. They’ll probably want to spend a bit of time first learning how iPhone users employ the service, though.

  • http://www.gameculturalist.com Jeff Ramos

    I think Places can go along way if Facebook can allow indie game devs to use the service for social games and alternate reality games. I try to discuss two ways they can do that here:

    http://www.gameculturalist.com/2010/08/2-ways-facebook-places-can-change-mobile-games/

    If you’re interested, you should check it out!

  • http://hongkong-guide.r76.se Resa restips

    I believe this could take that application of theirs to the next level. Looking forward to using it soon.

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  • http://buzzknow.com Buzzknow

    well now facebook want to expand their workaround..and get more investor.. right?

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