Why Facebook Places Will Make Foursquare into a Footnote

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 »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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