Location, location, location… it’s the buzzword in social networking right now and Facebook’s just jumped on the bandwagon too. But Al Warman asks if its new location service will be as uninspiring as all the others.
Do you care where I am? Since you ask, I’m sitting at my desk in Which? HQ, postcode NW1 4DF.
You can click through to Google Maps if you’d like to get a bit more detail. But frankly, unless you’re already one of my friends or a potential stalker, do you care?
Facebook thinks you might, as it yesterday unveiled its latest ‘feature’ – Facebook Places. This has the ability to track and broadcast the location of its half a billion users via their smartphones and GPS.
Facebook vs Foursquare
Let’s consider Foursquare, as it’s currently attracting the most attention of all these location-based services (LBS). Using it involves ‘checking-in’ to locations as you visit them and leaving ‘tips’ for other users.
Go to its website and you’ll find the claim that it’ll help you ‘unlock your world and find happiness just around the corner’.
I played around with Foursquare recently, and can report an imperceptible increase in my happiness levels. Maybe I don’t venture round enough corners.
Aside from the odd time when I wasn’t too busy actually living my life to be recording it on my smartphone, my small band of followers could take comfort in knowing where I was. Platform 11 of Clapham Junction Station (unremarkable), at home (predictable), at work (dull), or in a pub somewhere in between (marginally useful if they wanted to buy me a drink). The novelty soon wore off.
Foursquare also functions as some sort of online game. By regularly visiting locations you are awarded badges and points, or the ultimate accolade of ‘Mayor’ for being the most regular visitor to your local corner shop or bus station. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. Although I still have dreams of becoming the Mayor of IKEA in Croydon.
Just another way to invade our privacy?
The reason LBS exists is – surprise, surprise – to make money. Knowing where its most loyal and frequent customers are at any given time is invaluable to businesses. Foursquare users, for example, can be directly targeted with advertising, discounts and offers by retailers, based on their location and purchase history.
Like most aspects of online privacy, I’m happy with it up to a point. I trust my circle of friends not to burgle me when I’m not at home, and appreciate that I may want to hang out in Regents Park on my own at lunchtime without an impromptu group picnic.
But start sharing my location with the wider world, or taking away my control and I’m less laissez-faire. Facebook doesn’t have a great record of getting it right when it comes to appreciating what its users want from privacy settings, so it can’t afford to screw up this time. For social networking, it seems, location is where it’s at.
Facebook Places is available to US users from today, with a worldwide rollout planned soon.