Facebook Places: First Impressions

A little after 8pm EST last night, Facebook announced its much anticipated location base feature dubbed Facebook Places.   The three main components of Facebook Places will be sharing where you are, finding where your friends are and discovering new places around you.

There are no gimmicks, scoreboards, games, Mayors, Lords or made up names to go along with this new feature. Current location based services like Gowalla, Foursquare, Yelp and a few others will be able to push their check-ins through Places from the start.  It has been widely noted that Foursquare didn’t seem thrilled at the announcement of Places.

Another critical element of Places is the ability for friends to tag you as being present at venues just like as in photos.  There is also a “Here Now” feature that will show up once you check-in somewhere. As you can imagine, Places comes with a slew of new privacy settings to control who sees what and who can tag you at venues.  Privacy groups began voicing their concerns only hours after Facebook made the announcement.

While there is plenty of coverage on the specific features and privacy controls, I want to discuss the way Facebook went about announcing Places and some potential ramifications for users and businesses.

Privacy Settings and Notification

First, for such a major addition to the platform, I would expect more information to be available for users right from the start. On previous occasions when new features have been announced, users are greeted with a big box at the top of the page when they login explaining what’s new. I would venture to say the average Facebook user wouldn’t come across coverage of Places today, even with decent amounts of mainstream coverage.

My initial thought was the majority of Facebook users, especially the older demographic, will be completely freaked out over the idea of telling people where they are.  On top of that, add in the fact you can tag friends at locations without them explicitly giving permission and this sounds like another huge privacy snafu.  I know all of this can be taken care of with the privacy settings but that leads me to the next issue.

Why wouldn’t Facebook make a video that explains everything? They could have walked people through exactly how Places works and the new privacy settings for these features, including a walk through of the settings page. They could have even gone over the considerations users should have when setting them up.

When I went to look at my privacy settings this morning, I saw no call out for these new options I had to consider. Has Facebook learned nothing from what happened when they rolled out the Open Graph? It seems like they are content with letting users fend for themselves when dealing with privacy settings. I guess the negative press doesn’t scare them one bit, and maybe it shouldn’t considering the average person spends over 7 hours on their site a month.

Initial Availability

I was also a little disappointed when I updated my iPhone app this morning and was shown a graphic that said Places wasn’t available in my region yet. I understand the idea of a soft launch to make sure their servers can handle everything, but I didn’t get that feeling watching and reading everything last night. They should have announced Places yesterday, done a few days of PR and education and then rolled it out to a bigger user base.

It also seems that large businesses with multiple locations (the Starbucks of the world) won’t be able to merge all their Places pages with their main business page yet.  I think that is a mistake on the business side of things because you want the big brands to be able to integrate new features quickly to spread the word about them and get users on board. A great example of this is when they rolled out the Open Graph functionality with Pandora and its over 50 million users.

Final Thoughts

I do, at the end of the day, like this new feature and I think it is a great addition to the platform. I have been a big fan of Foursquare and it will be interesting to see how existing location base services can quickly integrate with Places and build better experiences on top of the platform. Or, if they try to go at it alone, they may simply cease to exist once Places can start offering rewards.

Facebook is exactly what was needed to bring location services to the masses. There is no doubt local advertising will get a huge boost from Places and hopefully users will be able to reap the benefits as well. I have to say the biggest initial winner is the small business that can now merge their Places page with the business page for deeper engagements with users.

I give a thumbs up for Facebook Places but a thumbs down for how Facebook is handling the rollout. Maybe this time they will finally learn how to announce a new feature, but probably not. In the end, Facebook is one more step closer to their goal of global domination. Or at least occupying all of a user’s time online.

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