Why Facebook Places Will Make Foursquare into a Footnote

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people like Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley have been building check-in-based social networking software since, oh, 2000 or so (that’s when Crowley started Foursquare predecessor Dodgeball, which Google acquired in 2005 but failed to exploit). I haven’t had a chance to test Places for myself—“this feature will be available in your region soon,” Facebook’s iPhone app informed me last night—but everything the company has revealed about it so far reinforces my impression that it’s been thoughtfully designed to complement the rest of Facebook’s services. By roughly next Wednesday, sharing a location will seem as natural to Facebook users as sharing a status update or a photo. The only surprise is that it took the company so long to figure out how to handle location. (“We’ve been working on this for a few months…a while…I guess a little bit more than a few,” Zuckerberg stammered at the announcement.)

Facebook’s privacy travails may have contributed to the delay. Zuckerberg cleverly sidestepped one journalist’s question about whether last spring’s public fracas over the company’s privacy policy revisions had set back the development of Facebook Places. “There was honestly so much to do that I don’t know if we could have launched it before now anyway,” he answered. But it was clear from a product tour by Michael Sharon, Facebook’s product manager for Places, that the company has spent a lot of time thinking about ways to deflect flak over the new features’ privacy implications. For example, Facebook users who are “tagged” in other people’s check-ins, i.e., mentioned by name, can control whether that information actually appears on the site, and to whom. (Alas, these measures don’t go far enough to appease the ACLU of Northern California, which posted detailed criticisms of Places’ privacy shortcomings within hours of the Facebook announcement.)

Here’s the main reason I think Facebook Places is the beginning of the end for Foursquare, Gowalla, and probably SCVNGR. All three of these startups make apps where check-ins are the central activity. To make the literally pedestrian activity of going from place to place more fun, all three companies dress up their check-ins with much-vaunted “game mechanics.” As long as location-sharing was still something new, rare, and cool, the curious and the tech-savvy flocked to these entertainments. But when a feature like location turns up at Facebook, that’s the very definition of going mainstream. Soon, tens of millions and eventually hundreds of millions of mobile device users will be able to check in everywhere they go, and it won’t take game mechanics to entice them to do so—just the desire to keep in touch with their friends.

So, no more Foursquare—unless, perhaps, the company were to recast its technology as a Facebook app, piggybacking on Facebook’s check-in infrastructure and providing game mechanics for those who still want them. But if Crowley wanted to integrate with Facebook, he probably would have accepted the company’s rumored $120 million purchase offer.

After the Facebook announcement last night, interestingly, VentureBeat’s Cody Barbierri talked with Crowley, who argued that Foursquare will be able to compete with Facebook precisely because check-ins are its specialty. “The core of Foursquare is check-ins—getting people off the couch and into the world to try new things and share with friends—while with Facebook check-ins are just another feature,” Barbierri wrote in a paraphrase of Crowley’s point. I agree with that observation, but I reach the opposite conclusion.

Don’t get me wrong—I’d be sad to see Foursquare or SCVNGR go by the wayside. I’ve interviewed Crowley, and I wrote one of the earliest profiles of SCVNGR founder Seth Priebatsch, and I think they’re both cool guys who deserve to succeed. But in the big picture, fans of geolocation technology have to be happy about what’s happening at Facebook. A technology whose possibilities have been tempting us for a decade or more is finally nearing mass adoption.

And not in a crass, commercialized way (although I have no doubt Facebook will eventually find a few ways to monetize its location-data trove). These guys really seem to believe in the power of geolocation. I was astonished to watch Facebook’s Chris Cox get a little choked up as he talked at the media event about sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s theory of the “third place,” and how Facebook believes that location technology can be a tool that pulls us together, rather than dividing us. Over time, Cox said, real-world places will acquire a virtual patina of check-ins and photos and updates, so that “the physical reality comes alive with the stories we’ve told there.” That’s a future I’ve been thinking and writing about for a long time, so I’m happy to see it approaching. I just never expected it to arrive via Facebook.

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

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