Facebook is set to unveil its new location features at an event in Palo Alto today.
The site has been working on these features for months, enabling ‘places’ tags to video and audio back in March and, no doubt, carefully watching the surge in use of services like Foursquare and Gowalla. Both have built significant traction with audiences but are also building partnerships with fairly enthusiastic venues, who benefit from very explicit near real-time information about their most committed customers. And customers, in turn, get discounts and prizes if they check in the most.
None of this will be lost on Facebook, who have also reportedly expressed interest in buying the lesser-known location-based service (LBS) Hot Potato.
LBS is certainly one of the hottest topics in technology right now, and after years of promises and experimentation is finally starting to take off thanks to a combination of interest in casual gaming, improved and widespread GPS in mobiles and the rise of apps, which has brought these services to a new audience.
But as well as needing to be seen to innovate in this area, Facebook’s interest is ultimately commercial. Those fledgling deals with venues and retailers have massive potential, picking up on the trend of downturn-friendly sites like Groupon that offer discounts to teams of well-organised consumers.
Nearly one-third of Facebook’s traffic is generated from mobiles, so adding auto-geotagging from mobiles to photos and possibly status updates is probable. The site could tag any location mention in a status update, on a wall, in a photo album — any content on the site, in short — as well as any geo-tagged media posted to it.
Location will be probably added to Facebook’s Platform for third-party developers, meaning Foursquare et al could plug in to Facebook’s userbase. Eventually, we can expect a standalone tab for location, probably a map visualising the locations of your friends — if not now, with the launch, then eventually once the backlash has died down.
And that’s the most significant point. While the early adopters will be quite happy to play with this tool (and in fact wonder why it took Facebook so long) the wider public are still very uncomfortable with location features. That’s a natural part of the technology adoption process, and also a symptom of the shifting perception of what is acceptably private and what is acceptably public. We are heading towards open, but cautiously, and it is right that these services are scrutinised to make them as robust and safe as possible. You can imagine the headlines.
Facebook knows that, and the only thing that matters about adding location data to Facebook profiles is how secure and uncomplicated the privacy settings are. One person’s ‘granularity’ is another person’s ‘complicated’, and Facebook had better hope users can turn privacy up to 11.
I’d argue that of all the features Facebook has launched, and every momentary backlash, this is by far the biggest opportunity for a serious blunder. That’s down to Facebook’s scale of half a billion people, the public’s discomfort with the commercial uses of their data (at least for those who care to think about it) and the uniquely risky implications of location services that go wrong.
If they get it right, on the other hand, it could finally deliver the promise of location-based-services to the mainstream. In technology at least, that’s big news.
© Guardian News & Media 2010