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Facebook’s going places, but will you follow?

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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.

But haven’t we been here before? Well, yes. Google has its own service ‘Latitude‘ and there’s also Foursquare , Gowalla and HotPotato – all doing the same thing in slightly different ways.

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.

Comments
Member

I have to say, I am tempted by this. I’ve use Latitude as it works on my Android phone who every time I check a map it logs and broadcasts my location. Trouble is I’ve only got two other friends using it. Having it built in to Facebook where I already have all my close friends might make it actually useful. Let’s just hope they listen to users this time about the privacy setup. Mind you, I think as long as you know that anything you put online is not going to be private and will never be deleted, then you should just be a bit more carefull about how much information you put online.

Member

Mr Gus makes a very good point about location-based services being of limited appeal if only a handful of friends are using the same site! In my limited time on Foursquare I accumulated 11 friends in total. Of these, one was in Australia and one in Canada, so geographically unavailable for frequent social meet-ups!. The ubiquity of Facebook means that Places has a good chance of being a success compared to its rivals, and bringing location-based social networking into the mainstream.

Member

I’ve always maintained that giving Facebook (or any other ‘social networking’ website) anything other than false information is the best way to get your identity stolen – that’s why I wouldn’t touch any part of it with a barge pole!

Member

I agree – I get fed up of number of people wanting me to be e-friends – I hate the lack of privacy that such groups encourage – I also do not want to spend so much of my life e-chatting.

Educational websites – such as this one – are different. I belong to several. If used carefully one can learn and teach. On line e-chatting is gossip.

Barge pole mind set applies to me too! 🙂

Member
Emily says:
24 August 2010

I must admit that I love Facebook, but this does not appeal at all… I have no interest in telling everyone my exact location – and even less interest in other people being able to tag my location when they update theirs. Places is one feature I’ll be disabling as soon it becomes available to UK users!

Member

Most of my 150-ish ‘friends’ on Facebook aren’t real friends at all (guess I’m not that popular). In fact, the majority are old school acquaintances who I haven’t seen for years. And the prospect of one of them turning up unannounced to meet me in my local Starbucks fills me with dread.

Saying that, if Facebook Places sent me a ‘targeted’ voucher for a half-price Mochaccino, I would be more willing to put up with unexpectedly meeting somebody who spent most of the fifth form flushing my head down the toilet…

Member

Emily – today is the day that Facebook Places arrives in the UK, so if you’re still not keen on sharing your location, you should head over to your Facebook profile settings page to disable this feature!

Everyone else – please let us know your experiences of Places when you’ve given it a try. I’m logging in to Facebook now…

Member

I disabled it first thing last Friday!