So Facebook has begun rolling out Places, its answer to Foursquare, Gowalla, MyTown, and every other mobile service that lets you broadcast your location by checking into local businesses and other locations. So far, I have only partial access: I can see friends who have checked in, but can’t check in myself.
Until now, the location service I’ve used most often has been Foursquare. I have fun with it. But I’ve also found it frustrating in one major way which I believe Places will address–it’s often unclear just who people on Foursquare are.
Of all types of social networking, location-based stuff is the most personal. One of the cool things about Twitter is chatting with random smart people you don’t otherwise know. And even Facebook is full of social features that make sense even when you’re socializing with someone who’s not exactly a close personal friend. (I don’t need to know you very well to compete against you on the Bejeweled Blitz leaderboard.)
But my location? I don’t want to share it with anybody or everybody. It’s not that I’m paranoid about getting robbed–okay, maybe just a tiny bit–but mostly, I just don’t think there’s a worldwide audience for information on where I’m having lunch or the fact that I’ve decided to go to a museum. Friends might care. So might anyone who happens to be in the same place at the same time. But not everybody.
At the same time, there aren’t all that many people whose locations I care about. If I cant tell who you are, I don’t care where you are, unless you’re in the same place that I am. And maybe not even then.
So I like the idea of my location-based service buddies being people I do, indeed, know–or at least people whose identities are clear. But Foursquare makes it maddeningly difficult to accomplish that. I spend much of my Foursquare time trying to figure out who people are, and I fail more often than I succeed.
In fact, at the moment, I have several hundred Foursquare friend requests I haven’t accepted. 98% of them are from people whose names don’t sound familiar. (They may be people who follow me on Twitter, but it’s hard to tell, since I may not be following them back–and even if I am, their Twitter names may be different from their Foursquare ones.) And many of these requests are from people whose Foursquare handles consist of a first name only: Chris, Michele, Peter, Ralph, and Scott.
In some cases, I can figure out who the one-namers are by clicking through to their Facebook or Twitter profiles; in others, the only evidence of their true identity is a tiny avatar.
Even once I accept a friend on Foursquare, it doesn’t list their entire names–it calls them Meriwether M. or Adam J. or Kevin R. If you happen to know two Lauren Ts or David Hs, it’s pointlessly vague and confusing.
But one of the defining features of Facebook is that–assuming people follow the rules–it’s easy to figure out who they are. Full, real names are mandatory. And if you’ve carefully tended to your Facebook friends list, making Places useful should be a whole lot easier than building a parallel universe of acquaintances on Foursquare.
It’s nice to look at Facebook Places and be absolutely clear on just who it is whose locations I’m learning about:
(Almost all the people whose Place I can see are tech journalists or Facebook staffers–I assume that Facebook may have given them early access to the check-in feature…or they’re at least among the first to try it out.)
I’m not saying that Places is going to appeal to particularly privacy-conscious folks. Facebook provides a lot of control over who can see where you are, but privacy organizations are already complaining about some of the default settings. I predict more grumbling in the days to come, and I wouldn’t be stunned if Facebook tweaks the service further in response. (The fact that the default settings let other people check you in is especially odd.)
But I look forward to using a check-in service that never leaves me asking the question “Who the heck is Edgar, and do I know him?”