Facebook Aug. 18 unveiled its long-awaited geotagging service, an effort that could move the market for location-based services forward considerably even as it threatens startups such as Foursquare and Gowalla.
Similar to Foursquare and Gowalla, Facebook Places lets users “check in” to a location via their smartphone to share their locations in real time with Facebook friends. Places will tell those users if their friends are nearby in case the parties want to meet up.
Currently, Places is available to those who use the most recent version of the Facebook application for Apple’s iPhone. Users may also access Places from the touch.facebook.com mobile Website from browsers that support HTML5 and geolocation.
Here’s how it works. Smartphones users will go to Places on the iPhone application or touch.facebook.com site and then tap the “Check In” button.
They should see a list of places near them and will pick the best match based on their location. If users don’t see their location, they can search for it or simply add it.
Once users check in, it will create a story in their friends’ News Feeds and surface in the Recent Activity section on the page for that place.
When users check in, they can post a status update along with their check-in to tell people what they are doing in addition to where they are doing it. They may also tag friends who are with them.
While Foursquare and Gowalla already blazed the check-in trail by offering badges, rewards and coupons from business, both companies’ social networks are small potatoes compared with Facebook.
Foursquare enjoys some 2.7 million users, while Gowalla has close to 1 million. Both networks are flyweights compared with Facebook’s massive network numbers north of 500 million users.
Facebook Places is currently available only in the United States, so Foursquare and Gowalla only have to compete with a network of about 100 million users.
Obviously, this is an untenable position for the companies, so they partnered with Facebook for Places, according to TechCrunch.
Facebook Challenges Privacy Measures with Places
Gowalla and Foursquare are using Facebook’s new Places API to let users check in and publish the data to their Facebook feed. Badges and pins from both services will transfer to Places.
This isn’t much different from the data sharing the occurs between Facebook and Twitter; tweets posted to Twitter can be automatically launched to Facebook.
Other things users should know about Places is that there is no hardcore opt-out, though there are some privacy controls.
In the “People Here Now” section, users can see others who are checked in at the same place, but this section is visible for a limited amount of time and only to people who are checked in there.
Those who prefer not to appear in this section can uncheck the “Include me in ‘People Here Now’ after I check in” privacy control. When users decide to check in to a location, they can tag friends who are with them as long as their settings are set to allow it.
Unless a user has explicitly set his or her master privacy control to “Everyone,” only friends can see when a user visits or is tagged at a place. Facebook Places Product Manager Michael Sharon noted in a blog post:
““When a friend tags you through Places, you will receive a notification on Facebook and on your mobile device. The first time this happens, you’ll be given the choice to allow your friends to check you in to places.”When your friends check you in, it is as if you have checked in at that place yourself. You also will appear checked-in to your friends. If you do not allow friends to check you in, then when they tag you at a place, your name will appear in the same way it appears in a tagged status update. You will not appear checked-in at that place.”“
Users can turn off the ability for friends to check them in at Places by going to their Privacy Settings and turning off the setting to “Let Friends Check Me In.”
Users who don’t want to share their check-ins with their friends’ third-party applications can uncheck the new box in Privacy Settings under “Applications and Websites.”
Within hours of the announcement, Facebook Places has already drawn privacy concerns from the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which decried the lack of an explicit opt-out control for Places.