Facebook launched a feature Wednesday evening allowing members to share real-life locations with online friends, as expected. The feature, Places, along with an iPhone app, rolls out in the U.S. first, but the plan is to launch the app in other countries and on other smartphones. ive the app into other countries and smartphones.
The feature requires using the new iPhone application or logging into the touch.facebook.com smartphone site on a phone that supports GPS auto-location. The product has been in a test phase for the past several months.
From Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO and founder, explained how Places helps members share their location, allows them to see who's around them, and provides a discovery tool for new businesses nearby.
The technology seems to further the network's push to become the Google of social. The location-based technology ties together friends from across the site through check-ins, tagging videos, and status updates. Facebook will release a read API on Thursday. A write and search API will follow soon.
But with all the geolocation and targeting technology comes a responsibility to which Facebook, in the past, reluctantly laid claim. Zuckerberg and other company officials emphasized a variety of privacy controls built into Places.
The default settings for check-ins are only seen by the Facebook friends. There's also an option to restrict the check-in notifications to a handful of Facebook friends. The service only activates after the member agrees to the option.
There are two permissions dialogs on the iPhone app. The feature also lets members opt-out from or disable the ability for friends to tag them as checked in at a location.
Forrester Research Senior Analyst Augie Ray says Facebook has realized it has grown and there's too much at stake to keep surprising or disappointing its members.
"With Places, Facebook hasn't rewritten the social media world, but it might just rewrite the way people think about social networks," Ray says. "Soon, the local restaurant or hiking trail may have as rich a personality as do the people on Facebook, not because everyone has visited, but because your friends have. And in the end, isn't that what we really care about? Not who is mayor of our local coffee shop, but what our friends did, said, and liked when they were there before us."
Facebook Places offers similar features as Gowalla and Foursquare, two location-based services that allow people to announce their whereabouts and earn rewards by visiting destinations.
Execs from Gowalla and Foursquare joined Facebook in the launch, having built businesses on location-based services, saying their respective companies will continue to build out services on top of Facebook's API. It's not immediately clear what they will actually do though, with Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley admitting his company hadn't yet had access to the new service, Wednesday.
Facebook also introduced Yelp, which recently launched a check-in feature, as a launch partner. Yelp users will be able to see Facebook check-ins.
Similar to Foursquare, Facebook members will have the ability to create new locations, with the location becoming a hot spot with enough check-ins. If enough people check-in, it become visible to all nearby Facebook members.
Not a bad idea for some small-to-medium size businesses. Jeremy Daly, managing director of digital planning of Euro RSCG NY, believes it means a branded dot-com becomes less important for such marketers and advertisers, and further cements Facebook's place in connecting physical and virtual world.
Facebook didn't announce tools aimed at advertisers and marketers, but future features could allow brands to better connect with consumers by putting the control back in the hands of marketers to reward and incentivize sharing the brand's information, according to Nathaniel Perez, director of social marketing at SapientNitro.
While it's not clear how many Facebook members will adopt Places, companies in the U.S. will spend $1.7 billion on ads in social destinations, up to $2 billion next year, according to eMarketer.
Advertisers will spend near $1.3 billion worldwide this year to reach Facebook's more than 500 million members. In 2010, Facebook will receive half of all social network ad spending in the U.S., and 39% worldwide.