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Facebook Places Banks On Foursquare, Gowalla, Yelp, Booyah Steam

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After months of speculations, Facebook has finally unveiled its geotagging feature. Facebook Places goes live today in the U.S., in partnership with several location-based services. You heard it, it does sound a lot like Twitter's earlier-launched Twitter Places: the name, the partners (at least for Foursquare, Gowalla and Localeze) and the same principle of layering and meshing data from those partners. So what's the difference? Where's the edge?

Roll Out
The launch will be a gradual roll out, kicking off with the U.S. today. The feature will "visible to the world in the web tomorrow," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during the conference announcing the new feature at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto yesterday. Facebook did not give an indication of the time scale for deployment in other countries, the policy being to "roll out when we feel we're ready," Zuckerberg commented. Partners for the new feature are Gowalla, Foursquare, Yelp, Booyah.

Localeze was not announced at the conference although it is also part of the deal, as confirmed by the local business listings company and by Facebook Places product manager Michael Sharon. At the moment, a read API is available but a write and search API is also in the pipeline. Due to its very nature, the feature is mainly intended for mobile use, hence the iPhone app public launch as early as last night. An Android version is on its way too.


Tag To share
Facebook Places takes the tagging feature to a new level. As Sharon explained, now that users are familiar with the functionality for photos and status updates, it is extended to create "places" by telling/sharing 1) where they are, 2) who they are with/who's around them and 3) what is going on. The feature is a mix of what the partners offer: first, you check in, then you create the layers of information around your check in, in a way that re-creates your reality, including rating the place or making a note of something you did there. The places can either be already existing locations suggested by Facebook (they told us some 10 million were available at launch) or new places users create - a place can therefore be anywhere, encompassing businesses as well as private locations or events. Tagging makes the experience available for everyone to share, including those without elaborate mobile devices, Chris Cox, Facebook's VP of product, said, as the people can still view the content directly on their web feed or get text notifications.


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Chris Cox speaking to reporters at the Facebook Places Launch


Share And Care: Privacy Controls
Facebook took time to explain at length the privacy controls for the new application. Checking in implies an agreement to make the information public. However, users have to push the "I agree" barrier first in order to start sharing. Once they have allowed the application to use their data, users are able to check in, and their information will automatically show as a post on their wall, as an item in "Recent activity," and in "Here now."


Here Now
The latter one has a safeguard that lowers the creepiness factor though. One can only tag a person once one has checked in. For instance, if someone wants to tag a friend s/he spots in a seedy/non-recommendable place, that user has to check into that seedy place first him/herself in order to be able to then tag the friend. If the user chooses the "Not now" option, his check-in information will only show on his friends wall but not on his profile/wall and therefore, no location data from that place will be associated to the post.


Full Privacy Widget
By default, the check-ins are visible to "Friends only" but Facebook is providing its users with a full privacy widget that can be adjusted all the way up (maximum privacy) or down (maximum sharing). Users always have the possibility to remove any check-in from their profile. As for the "Here now" option, if the setting is lower than sharing to "friends of friends," it automatically defaults to "off." And finally, Facebook offers the possibility to opt out of friends tagging you altogether.


Privacy Still A Concern
Despite Facebook's best efforts to explain their fully customizable privacy settings, the company has not assuaged fears over that part of the "deal." One rights group, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California is already expressing concern over the new feature's implications: "Facebook Places: Check This Out Before You Check In" they warned in a post.
True, the social site has been quite prolific on the inter-user privacy but it did not say much on how user information is to be shared with the partners, i.e. third-parties. That had already been an issue but precisely without an opt-in option. Today's opt-in choice is clearly stated and yet, does not say what information is shared and for how long, with third-parties. During the presentation, Cox said memories will no longer gather dust on shelves but will be alive thanks to Facebook Places. Implicitly, would this mean that data will be kept for ever? Moreover, when suggesting places to users, the company said those suggestions will not just be for places surrounding the person but places that are most likely to be of interest to the user. Meaning that your personal behavioral data will be stored and used to match you with suggestions and serve you with targeted ads. Not that this is not already widely the case on the web but this is taking it to a new dimension, as Facebook's graph is the super internet glue, interlinking every place on the web to its platform via the "Like" button. Facebook played down the whole issue during the conference but they are well aware of the implications as shows the sticky note spotted by our colleague from ClickZ, Chris Heine.

Monetization
Another topic that also has been dodged by the Facebook team was that of monetization. While acknowledging that the new feature opened a world of possibilities, Zuckerberg said the question would be addressed at a later time. When asked about the implication of having local business listings firm Localeze on board, Sharon said the company's policy was "not to comment on products that haven't launched yet."


Search
You must have been wondering where search had gone in the swing of things. As Facebook said, a write and search API will be available. This seemingly minor statement potentially holds the key to monetization... through search. We did bring you the news that Facebook was testing its search capacities, extending its reach to content beyond its own platform. Put together 'just' the aggregated information provided by Facebook Places and the whole mix of tagging opportunities/layers PLUS the power of the recently launched Facebook Questions. Add to that the numbers: over 500 millions users for Facebook, of which 150 million are mobile users; 3.1 users for Booyah's MyTown alone; over 100 million users for Foursquare... and so on: there you have it, a Google killer. Unless the rumored Google Me gets its act together and beats the initially social platform only to the bush.

User Benefit?
Talking to a few Foursquare users following the announcement of Facebook Places, it appears that they do not see the added value of the new feature. Such users are already hyper-connected across the web and interfacing it with real life. Apart from putting brands forward, the question is: what do users gain from this that Foursquare and other location-based services aren't already giving them? Zuckerberg's stance of "we do not create for brands, we build for the people" (another answer he gave to the monetization question) does not echo the reality as perceived by users themselves. Other Facebook users we spoke to were annoyed in anticipation of having their newsfeeds "spammed" by people checking-in and "reporting" (rating) on places everywhere and all the time. The Foursquare users we talked to earlier were aware of the issue, and most of them had stopped linking their Foursquare and Facebook accounts as their friends complained of the information overload and subsequent constant annoyance.

So Facebook Places, hit or miss? You tell us.


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