Facebook's foray into location-based services launched last night. And while Places borrows heavily from existing services available on Yelp, Foursquare and Gowalla, one difference is the way that Facebook plans to grow its new product.
Facebook Places check-ins will be shared with users' entire network of friends. And if users wish, they can check other people into locations. Perhaps predictably, there are some privacy issues with this approach. But it ensures that people who may not otherwise interact with Places are sure to know it exists. And unless objections arise, Facebook's appraoach should be great for user adoption.
Facebook Places offers little new for social media users who already employ location-based services. But mobile location services are still a new concept to many consumers, and Places could go a long way toward increasing their adoption. Take for instance the fact that Foursquare, the most popular location service right now, has 2.5 million users. Facebook has 500 million.
If Facebook gets its users hooked on its version of the tools that already exist elsewhere, it could put these burgeoning companies out of business. For now, the company says it is not interested in accomplishing that.
Facebook went out of its way last night to show that it is working with — not against — existing location based applications. The company had representatives from Yelp, Gowalla and Foursquare at its Places launch event.
Facebook getting into location could increase the user base for those companies. But right now Facebook is interested in getting people using its service. And it is doing that with its huge preexisting user base and a few defaults that the others don't use.
For starters, the social circle for users on location-based services is more catered to seeing people in real life. Most people only friend people there that they know in real life. Facebook has become a place for larger digital connections.
But Facebook is interested in its users sharing more, not less. And with people already sharing their check-ins on Facebook and Twitter, the company is betting that such restrictions will fade online.
Once users are comfortable with sharing their location with their Facebook connections, they can happily go about checking into different venues. And unlike existing services, they can also check other people in. This option is likely to be big help with user adoption. Mostly because despite Places existence, there are plenty of people who will never use the feature. Unless it is forced upon them.
Facebook users — or at least people who write about Facebook — don't usually like having things forced upon them.
But like many of its features, Facebook's Places guidlines are painted with broad strokes, so that users who might not try it will see it in use and then partake. Facebook users can change their settings to avoid having others check them in (and minors cannot be checked in by others) but Facebook thinks it would be cooler if they did.
It's an interesting privacy choice by Facebook. As Buzzfeed CEO Jon Steinberg puts it (in a post generally praising the new service):"These Facebook guys are willing to play dangerous with this stuff." Sometimes that strategy bites back. But often, pressing the limits of user comfort has contributed to Facebook's growth. In this case, Facebook is not diverging too terribly from the practices of other similar services. And it's easy enough to opt out if users take offense to any of the new check-in features. But with Facebook, it's always hard to know how people will react to service changes until they do it.