Facebook Places – What it Does, Why They Built it, and its Impact on You

If you haven’t heard that Facebook has rolled out ‘Places’ a new feature that allows you to broadcast your location, you’re probably over the age of 30 and not a Facebook user. But that still makes you part of a huge segment of the population, and one in which many parents of Facebook users fall into.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to location broadcasting – popularly called location ‘check-ins’. Done carefully and with deliberation announcing your location isn’t necessarily a bad thing, a point underscored by Michael Sharon, product manager for Places. “This is not a service to broadcast your location at all times, but rather one to share where you are, who you are with, when you want to. It lets you find friends that are nearby and help you discover nearby places.”

Facebook isn’t the first service to enable location beaconing, social networking services like Foursquare and Gowalla are specifically designed let you to share location information with others, and services like Mologogo have been around since 2005.

What Facebook’s Places service does

Facebook’s new geolocation features allows users to update their status with their exact location, tag themselves in pictures based on location, and tag friends who are with them in same the location. These check-ins are then broadcast as status updates on users personal sites, on a user’s friends pages, and on the Places page for that location.

Note: For now, the ability to check in at a particular location is only available for users on mobile phones.

Sharing this information can help users invite friends to their location, or join friends at their location. It can help drive awareness for events – for example, I was at the PII 2010 conference held in Seattle earlier this week, and Places made it possible to see which other experts were in attendance, and help potential attendees determine what times they wanted to be there. Sharing location information can also provide users with location based coupons and ads that they may find useful, reviews of businesses and restaurants that they may want to eat in, and identification of the popular spots around them – something that may be particularly interesting for tourists.

At the same time, sharing your location information, or the location of others, can jeopardize you or your friends ‘privacy and safety, with consequences that can range from embarrassing to deadly.

According to Walt Mossberg‘s Facebook Places review, Facebook has set an age limit so that “minors are excluded from seeing anyone except their friends.” I haven’t been able to learn more about any restrictions for youth but hope that there are also restrictions on who can see the location posted by a minor – and a clear notice to youth to talk to their parents about the feature. Another concern is that even if there are strong protections in place for minors, we know that a tremendous number of minors lie about their age on social networks, and for these, protections won’t take effect.

The business case for releasing Places

Businesses are in the business of making money, and rightly so.

Facebook says the reason they have added Places is simply enrich the social experience it already provides. “We’re just building a new way for people to share that information in an engaging way,” says one Facebook official. Facebook says it isn’t monetizing the service, at least not at first [italics added], but may consider ways for companies to make use of the data “down the line.”  This seems more than a little disingenuous.

Facebook expects that Places will increase consumers’ use of their service, and increased usage translates into more advertising dollars. Collecting users’ location information is particularly lucrative in that it will allow Facebook to capture the advertising dollars from local and small businesses that aren’t interested in the broader nationwide type of coverage. To date, this small and local advertising market has been a largely untapped revenue opportunity for internet companies, and both Facebook and Google are vying to capture this mobile advertising and local search revenue stream.

“Location gives marketers a great way to target customers,” said Debra Williamson, an analyst with eMarketer. “The whole idea is to reach people at the point of decision before they have to clip a coupon or perform a search.”

Three reasons why Facebook’s method of rollout, and lack of education materials are disappointing

  1. The arrival of Facebook’s location tracking service was not a deep dark secret – so why didn’t they educate their users – and their user’s parents - in advance of the rollout about the pro’s and con’s of using location services, and how to use these safely?

    Let’s go back to the Michael Sharon quote This is not a service to broadcast your location at all times, but rather one to share where you are, who you are with, when you want to. It lets you find friends that are nearby and help you discover nearby places.”

    Exactly how should a basic user have learned what’s involved in making informed decisions about when they might “want to” share? Who explained the potential ramifications of doing so in various circumstances?

    Where’s the information that says people who:

    1. frequently check-in from bars may see their auto insurance rates increase in the future?
    2. check-in daily from the doughnut shop may see an increase their medical insurance?
    3. checked-in years ago from a questionable location may see it haunt their reputation?
    4. lied about being sick, get fired after checking-in from the beach?
    5. broadcast their location increase their risk of physical stalking and harm?
    6. and so on…

    Awareness of these risks doesn’t come in one’s DNA at birth; it needs to be taught, and it should be taught by the very companies rolling out these services. I am less frustrated that this education wasn’t launched by the smaller location social networks, as their audiences are largely more tech savvy. But for Facebook, with its enormous number of users who are far less technically sophisticated, failing to provide this basic safety and privacy education is outrageous.

  2. Then there is the question of settings. These exist, but where are the step-by-step settings guide to help consumers actually achieve the privacy and safety they desire? Why do consumers need to go to places like Gawker to understand that The First Thing You Should Do With Facebook Places: Don’t Let Other People Tag You, or Lifehacker to learn How to Disable Facebook Places?Watch Lifehacker’s video on Facebook’s Places’ privacy settings:

    At this week’s PII 2010 conference, a UI designer (someone who designs the user interface for products and services) said that among the UI world, they’ve coined the phrase “Zuckering” (Mark Zuckerman is the CEO of Facebook) which means to make the user experience so complicated that consumers can’t figure out how to appropriately create their settings and simply give up. That the phrase was coined – and well understood by tech insiders – speaks volumes about the company’s failure to make their settings understandable to average users. Given this complexity, the lack of a step-by-step guide is especially irresponsible.

  3. You are automatically opted in to Places, if you don’t like it, you have to figure out how to opt out. And what it takes to opt out is a clear example of the “Zuckering” described above. The settings are scattered across the overall privacy settings, and nothing indicates which settings are impacted.There are four critical settings to review and adjust (While you’re at it, take the to review the rest of your settings and the settings of minors in your care as well):Log into Facebook and choose Privacy settings under your Account menu.  Next, on the bottom left, you’ll see the Customize option. Click on this to see the Customize settings option at the bottom of that page.

    Under “Things I Share” change two settings if you don’t want to be seen. Where it says “Places I check in” the default is set to visible by your friends only. To change this, use the drop down menu and select “Only Me.” (Note: once Facebook begins monetizing Places, it is unclear whether the ‘only me’ setting may still make your location visible to merchants. This will be something to watch for in the future.)

    Next, there is a checkbox next to “Include me in ‘People Here Now’ after I check in” that is by default set to enabled. What this does is to share your location to anyone looking at that location’s page, or in a search for people near you. Uncheck the Enable box if you don’t want this.

    The third setting to look at is on this same page, just scroll down to the section “Things Others Share” for “Friends can check me in to Places.” This fields may be blank, but change it to be “Disabled” or friends can check you in whether you like it or not – and where they check you in could cause you real harm – see just a few examples listed above, then come up with your own. The service does not require that a user tells the truth about a location.

    Lastly, you need to go back to your Privacy Settings page and select the “Applications and Websites” link, and navigate to the Info accessible through your friends section. Click on Edit Settings link and uncheck the box Places I check in to.

When a company is as big as Facebook or Google, it has a social responsibility to help drive the public discussion around privacy and safety tradeoffs; to educate consumers; and to actively design features that can be easily configured to comply with consumers’ intent. These companies should take some lessons on social responsibility from the large internet companies that helped forge the way, and made (and continue to make) consumer safety and awareness front and center. These include Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo!.

Linda

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