The Facebook approach to location

post by: Mark Williams

Facebook has announced a sweeping set of sharing and privacy changes for users, including a “phasing out” of its check-in based structure for Places. While dwarfed by the news of Steve Jobs departure from Apple, these changes have many pundits declaring defeat for Facebook and a triumph for Foursquare in the field of location-based services.

I disagree. I think Facebook is actually expanding the concept of location in a more organic direction. The new Places is more user-friendly for the non-technorati  and fosters an emotional connection to Places, rather than promoting an incentive-laden game.

Once the changes roll out, you’ll still be able to “check in” from some mobile devices, just as you could before. But you’ll also have the option to attach specific city and location data to to all status updates and photos that you post from your desktop/laptop/tablet, including for places you visited in the past or are considering exploring in the future.

In other words, you won’t actually have to be at a location to share it. (Check out the video on the updated Facebook location page for a good walk-through of the new features.)

My quick hit is that this new concept of location fits totally within Facebook’s focus on personal identity. It’s a huge step forward for Facebook and more in line with how people conceive of a sense of place.

Less about gaming; more about a sense of place

Real-time check-ins are mostly about gaming, broadcasting, and garnering status/badges, and are often monetized by brands offering deals/discounts for playing. The beauty and limitation of real-time check-ins are that you must be physically at the location (or at least within shouting distance of it) to check in.

But if you forget to check in — it happens to me all the time — you can’t earn credit for having been to a place, including any special deals that might have come your way. Essentially, you have to keep playing the real-time check-in game to win, and you only keep playing if you keep getting rewards for doing so.

But while gaming appeals to some, a sense of place holds a much deeper meaning to most of us.

Our personal identity is significantly shaped by the places we’ve been. Go into any social gathering — online or off — and a guaranteed conversation starter is “where are you from?” or “where have you been?”. We define ourselves by the places we are connected to — places where we were raised, had a great vacation, created memories with friends, went to school, grew up or fell in love.

I haven’t lived in Seattle for 12 years now, but I love the city, and still consider myself more of a Seattle person than a Californian. There are many places in Seattle that are a part of my personal history that I would like to check into again and share with my friends. Partly for nostalgia reasons, and partly to feel closer to my friends who still live there.

With Foursquare or Gowalla, I can’t show my fondness for University Teriyaki on the Ave, or the Blue Moon tavern, Dick’s hamburgers, or any number of my favorite Seattle places because I currently live in California. I’m there in spirit, but not in person, so I’m left out of the game.

But as a proud UW alum, with the revamped Facebook location features, I can post status updates or old photos and tag them as Husky Stadium or the Glenn Hughes Playhouse, without actually being there! It’s not just a flight of fancy or nostalgia on my part, either, as I’ll be able to connect with other Husky football or theater fans who share my passion for those places and the events that happen there.

I can easily declare my public affinity to any number of restaurants, parks, favorite stores, etc., which will in turn give those brands the opportunity to connect with me through their latest Facebook Deals. To date, Deals have been based on actual, physical check-ins, but expect that to change. Soon, the University Book Store can start targeting me with discount offers because of my emotional check-in to the place, even though I’m not physically living in Seattle.

I like the move by Facebook. It makes location on Facebook even more valuable by fostering an emotional connection to places in our lives, rather than just making a game of it.

What do you think? Is Facebook Places a loser in the location-based services game — or will it develop deeper roots? What places are significant in your personal history, and would you like to ‘check-in’, even if you’re not physically there?

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