Walt Mossberg

Facebook Checks In to the World of Locations

The 800-pound gorilla of social networks, Facebook, is jumping into the location game.

On Wednesday, it announced a new, optional service for its 500 million members called Places, which allows you to check in to various places you go, and share that information with your Facebook friends, complete with maps and comments and the Facebook thumbs-up “like” feature.

I’ve been testing the new service, and found it easy to use and reliable, with mostly logical privacy controls, an issue on which Facebook has been bruised in the past.

Companies began to build location-based social networks shortly after smartphones began to include social-networking apps and the ability to pinpoint your location.

These services let you and your network “friends” know if you were in the same area, so you could get together. They also let merchants entice you with coupons or ads. All you had to do was use your smartphone to “check in” an establishment.

These location-based networks, notably Foursquare, have grown fast. Especially in a recession, many users appreciate offers to save money. There also is money to be made by the merchants.

But these networks are controversial. Though most have privacy controls, they are accused of eroding privacy by allowing others to know exactly where you are at any time. They also raise issues about giving such information to merchants.

Fourquare also has turned off some potential users with a big overlay of game-like features, like earning points and badges for visiting places, and even the ability to become the “mayor” of, say, a bar you frequent.

On the Facebook app, you initially can check in to Places only if you have Apple’s iPhone, though you can use a site at touch.facebook.com via your browser on other phones and laptops that can track your location and support HTML 5 technology.


Facebook Places on the iPhone.

In the past week or so, my colleague Katherine Boehret and I have used Facebook Places to check in with iPhones around our home base of Washington, D.C., at stores, bars, restaurants and even our office. I also was able to check in, or “tag,” other Facebook members with me, like my visiting son and daughter-in-law. All of these tests went well, but I was surprised by one odd thing: I could check myself into nearby places even if I wasn’t there.

At each location, Places lets you see your friends and other Facebook members (even if they’re not your friends), who are nearby, a feature called “People Here Now.”

Minors are excluded from seeing anyone except their friends. We couldn’t test this “Here Now” feature because, in the pre-release stage, there weren’t enough people with the new service to be nearby.

These check-ins were posted on our Facebook pages (though, for this test, they could only be seen by the handful of others with pre-release access to the service), and people could comment.

One reason Facebook has launched Places, surely, is to compete with location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla. Those services already can link up with Facebook and tap its huge member base, a potential threat to the larger social network.

Facebook says it is adding Places merely to enrich the social experience it already provides. The company says its users already post status messages that say things like: “at Starbucks in Harvard Square with Susan and Jeff.” Now, they can tap a new Places icon in the Facebook app on their iPhones and do this more easily, complete with a map. “We’re just building a new way for people to share that information in an engaging way,” says one Facebook official.

Facebook says it isn’t monetizing the service, at least not at first, but may consider ways for companies to make use of the data “down the line.”

Users won’t receive ads or offers, at least initially. But if a merchant already has a Facebook page, some will be able to display your check-ins from the start, though visible only to your friends. Facebook says it has no plans to add game-like features to Places, though third-party developers might.

In addition to testing Places around town, I paid close attention to its privacy features, to judge how much control Facebook is offering users over who gets to see where they are. My conclusion is that the controls are decent, but could be a bit better. You can control how public your Places information is on Facebook’s privacy settings screen, in the Sharing section. The default for Places is “Friends Only,” unless you expressed a preference to share things with everyone. That’s a good thing, in my view. You can change this to broaden it to, say, friends of friends, or even everyone. Or, you can limit it, so that, for instance, only certain people can see your location, or certain people can’t.

Facebook also allows you to bar others from checking you in, and lets you hide yourself from others’ “Here Now” listings, though you can’t customize this latter setting by, say, allowing only some people to know you’re nearby.

In my tests, these settings worked fine. But I wished a couple of other settings were available. For example, you can’t keep check-in notices off your Facebook page, unless you broadly block other kinds of status updates. And you can’t block merchants from including your check-ins at their establishments on their Facebook pages. Also, while Places omits some annoying aspects of its competitors, like the game features, it’s more stripped down and leaves out some attractive features others include. Foursquare has a feature that lets you leave suggestions about a location. And Gowalla has a “trips” feature that lets users string together places they’ve been into recommended tours.

Overall, I found Places a good enhancement to Facebook and one that will likely make the booming social network even more attractive to some.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos at walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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