Some Thoughts on Facebook Places

The announcement of Facebook Places frankly reminds me of the last rollout of location services by an Internet giant: Google Latitude.

  1. The media freaks out about the privacy implications (see Lifehacker on how to disable the feature).
  2. Hardly anyone can use the service because of national or technical limitations: Facebook Places is U.S.-only, and can only be used from the updated iPhone Facebook app or from their mobile-browser-optimized website (which requires a device with an HTML5 compatible browser and a GPS — so I can use it with my 3G iPad, if I were in the U.S.).
  3. Of that subset of U.S. iPhone and HTML5-with-GPS users on Facebook, few will actively want to use it. (As with Latitude, the only people I’ve seen use it so far are people in the geospatial industry.)

The sort of people who have no qualms about sharing their location — who are eager to do so — are already using Gowalla, Foursquare and so forth; Facebook didn’t get to be Facebook by being dumb, so those services are integrated into Places.

From what I’ve been reading, the privacy critique of Facebook is essentially as follows:

  1. It’s on by default.
  2. By default, your friends can tag your location (which invites mischief and embarrassment).
  3. Private locations (like someone’s home) can become public and can’t then be removed from the location database.

I’ve already got friends concerned about this, even though Places isn’t available in Canada yet. This isn’t the first time a move by Facebook has generated privacy worries, but this is precisely the sort of thing that can cripple the rollout of geolocation services. The benefits offered by this sort of thing — serendipitous meetups — aren’t important enough to outweigh those concerns for enough people.