As a big fan of location-based applications (I'm currently 'checking in' at various locations on five different apps...!) I have of course been watching the launch and subsequent spread of Facebook Places with great interest.
Now that the first batch of dust has had a chance to settle, I wanted to look in a bit more detail at some of the hurdles 'Places' may face in the coming months, if past experience is to be believed.
Most commentators have speculated that Facebook's massive userbase alone will be enough for them to trounce all other applications with very little effort. However, if Spider-Man has taught us anything, it is that with great power comes great responsibility. Could it's sheer size actually turn in to it's downfall?
The trouble with people...
If, like me, you have used applications like FourSquare and Gowalla, you'll be familiar with how frustrating it can be when you go to check-in at a built-up location, only to find dozens and dozens of locations called things like 'My House', 'Jeff's batchelor pad' or even more obscure titles.
Facebook has seen exactly the same proliferation of nonsense locations, on an even greater scale than FourSquare. In a few hours alone on Saturday, I saw friends of mine checking in at bus stops (and more bizarrely still, buses), their houses, their fridges and even their toilets.
Whilst some of these people may just be testing the system (with no 'Mayorships' or prizes to aim for, there is very little other reason to do this apart from fun) Facebook Places is already filling up with thousands of nonsense locations.
If Places is to succeed, Facebook will need to develop a system for reporting/deleting these locations without needing to rely on their own internal (and over-worked) moderation teams. Gowalla has a 'Street Team' of advanced users who have the power to merge, delete, correct and move other people's locations - Facebook will need something similar, and fast.
So many pages, so little time
Another issue that Places has thrown up - particularly for brands - is the confusion that is now emerging from the new pages created by each location being added. For brands, you now have to worry about: 1) Your official page, 2) Any 'community page' that may have been created by Facebook in their recent creation, 3) Old official (and unofficial) brand 'groups', 4) Unofficial pages created by fans and 5) New Places pages created by this new system.
Whilst Facebook insist they will soon allow brands to merge some of these pages together, at present you can only 'claim' places associated with your brand, and customise them to an extent. The confusion this is causing in Facebook's own search is already evident - type any famous brand name in to the search box and you will find multiple official-looking pages to choose from. If Facebook don't sort this out soon, brands will begin to get very frustrated...
And I'm doing this... why?
Foursquare has mayorships and offers; Gowalla has virtual gifts, trips and prizes; SCVNGR has challenges and offers; What does Facebook have to incentivise users to check in at locations? So far, nothing. I'm sure Facebook don't intend to leave the service in the skeleton form it is now, but users are going to tire of checking in very quickly if the 'game' doesn't get more interesting.
The potential boredom of it's existing users is just the start of the risk when it comes to Places fatique. Whilst other location-based apps rely on you sharing activities with other users and occasionally Twitter/Facebook, Places check-ins are visible to everybody using the site - not just those using the mobile application. I've already heard dozens of non-mobile users bemoaning the flood of new check-ins appearing in their feeds - presumably the initial frenzy of checking-in will die down soon enough, but the boredom of other users is only set to grow.
Integration, not segregation!
As I mentioned at the start of this blog, before Facebook Places came along I was already trying out (in various phases) a number of other location-based services for size. When Facebook launched Places, several of them released statements assuring users that they would soon be integrating with Facebook's service through their new API. This would theoretically allow users to check-in using both Facebook Places and their own service, without having to physically do so twice.
So far, the only real integration I have seen is the inclusion of Facebook Places check-ins in my SCVNGR friend list; None of the other promised tie-ups seem to have happened yet, at least not in the UK. Whilst this isn't necessarily a fatal flaw in their offering, it's certainly going to be another frustration for users.
So there we have it - just a few of the potential hurdles that Facebook are going to face if they hope to turn Places in to a world-beating service. I'm sure there are more though - feel free to add them in the comments below!