The countdown is officially on for the big Facebook location backlash. How long will it be? One week? Two weeks? We all know it’s coming, it’s just a matter of when. And that’s too bad because I think Places is actually pretty great — potentially.
The ACLU wasted little time yesterday trying to start such a backlash (their post on the matter came what, a whole 30 seconds after the press conference ended?). Evelyn already did a nice job deconstructing many of their arguments and showing why a few were ridiculous. All I can add is to say that thank god the ACLU doesn’t design consumer apps — it would be like Facebook’s current nightmare of settings multiplied by a billion. We’d have settings for individual minutes in individual days for when individual users could see individual profiles. It would be the least social social network ever.
Today, the EFF followed up the ACLU’s post by citing things like pleaserobme.com as an illustration of how sensitive location information can be. Not cited is the fact that most people have jobs which they are at from 9 to 5 everyday, so they’re not likely to be home then, leaving their houses susceptible to robbery.
My point is that plenty of people right now are out there on the hunt for a way to show that Facebook Places is the devil. It’s an easy angle. You take something that already is a very sensitive topic: Facebook privacy — and combine it with another sensitive topic: location privacy. Boom. Match made in hell.
I thought Facebook’s presentation (and video) about Places yesterday was great because it focused on the positive. The talk was about serendipitous meetups and friends nearby, not people being stalked or worse. It seems like Facebook fully understands that location has the potential to be the bridge between social networking and actually being social. I’m just surprised it has taken them this long to launch a product.
But clearly they wanted to be careful. And they’re still being careful. Places is about as bare-bones as a location service can be. It is just check-ins. And that’s undoubtedly why they’re paying homage to Foursquare in the Places logo. Without Foursquare, Places would not exist.
But after only one day of using Places I’m seeing the potential here. I’m seeing friends checking-in who I’ve never seen use Foursquare. I’ve seen some friends check-in who I’m fairly positive have no idea what Foursquare is. Earlier, I was in a park near my apartment and I checked-in and saw that 30-some other people that I wasn’t friends with were checked-in there as well.
To some people, that’s creepy (it has been a feature on Foursquare for a while and that’s basically what Loopt was for a while). But to me, I think that’s potentially really interesting for when it comes to meeting people. And the fact that so many had checked-in on day one of the service is impressive.
That’s the power of Facebook’s social graph. It’s a graph that none of the current location players can touch even if you added all of their users together and multiplied them by twenty. Facebook is going to bring location to the mainstream by virtue of their size alone.
But the flip side is that because Facebook has such a large social graph that’s already established, a lot of current users are going to feel this new layer as something being forced upon them. And again, creepy. Of course there’s the option not to use it, but I can certainly see how the friend tagging thing is troubling to a lot of people (particularly because of the somewhat confusing three states).
But it’s also potentially a great tool. Imagine if you’re with a group of friends and only one of you has to check everyone in. That’s the cure for check-in fatigue right there. And when you think about it, this functionality isn’t much different than the tweets we’ve all sent that state something like “at the park with @____ @_____ @_____ and @_______”.
But the real key of Facebook Places is as a platform. Though it is still in the process of being turned on, it’s going to be great to be able to load up one app and see where people from Foursquare, Gowalla, Yelp, etc have all checked-in. And even better will be when you can check-in on Facebook Places and push it out to these services (so far, only Gowalla has committed to working on this as far as I know).
These services are all going to have to focus on building great utilities on top of this platform because the check-in will finally be completely commoditized. And that’s a good thing. I hope the Places API becomes the Facebook Connect for check-ins so the real innovation can begin. We need to remove the “ugh, another service I have to check-in to” factor.
That’s undoubtedly what Facebook is hoping for too. It’s a potential new branch of the Platform.
While location obviously has risks associated with it, it’s the upside that has all of these startups and now bigger players interested in the space. It’s easy to forget about this upside and instead worry about how everyone is going to be stalking one another. You know, the same things people used to say about the Internet itself back in the day.