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 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 the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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