Facebook Places Brings Simple Location Sharing to the Masses

Yesterday, Facebook announced a much-anticipated feature that allows users to easily post their current location on the site. The new setup, known as Facebook Places, works much like other location-based services, such as Foursquare or Gowalla, by letting users “check in” at nearby places. Geolocation providers, such as a mobile phone’s GPS, pinpoint the user, and Localeze provides the initial database of places. Eventually, users will be able to add their own locations to the Facebook map. Inside Facebook has a run-down of the overall functionality.

Facebook also allows your friends to check you in at locations, and these check-ins are indistinguishable from ones you made for yourself. In typical opt-out fashion, you can disable these check-ins via your privacy settings, and you’ll be asked about allowing them the first time a friend checks you in somewhere.

Even if you stop friends from checking you in to places, however, they can still tag you with their check-ins, similar to how friends can tag you in photos or status updates. Such tags will appear on your wall, as tagged status updates do now. You’ll be able to remove tags after the fact, but it doesn’t seem that you’ll be able to prevent friends from tagging you altogether.

Applications have two new permissions related to places. One gives access to your check-ins, the other gives access to your friends’ check-ins as well. Both will appear in the list of requested permissions when you authorize an application, and they are required for API access to check-ins. If your friends grant an application access to friends’ check-ins, you can prevent yours from appearing via “Applications and Websites” privacy controls.

API access is currently read-only – authorized applications can access your check-ins, but can’t submit check-ins to Facebook. That sort of functionality is currently in closed testing, though.

ReadWriteWeb has a nice guide to applicable privacy settings. When these controls first appeared on my profile, Facebook set the visibility for all my check-ins to “Friends Only” by default and disabled API access to my check-ins via friends by default. But they also enabled by default another setting which makes individual check-ins visible to anyone nearby at the time, whether friends or not. The option for letting friends check me in was not specifically set, but apparently I would have been prompted the first time a friend checked me in.

According to Facebook, you will only be able to check-in at locations near where you are, as determined by the geolocation feature of your browser (or your phone’s GPS for the iPhone app). I’m a bit suspicious on how difficult faking a check-in will be, but I don’t yet have the ability to test that out.

Facebook’s initial geolocation rollout brings a fairly modest feature set, but when integrated with Facebook Pages and made available to a network of 500 million people, the service offers great potential. As with other recent changes, adding check-ins reduces friction for users to share their location and provides Facebook with another valuable set of data about people’s daily activities. It remains to be seen whether users will react with discomfort over the potential for an entirely new meaning of “Facebook stalking” or with excitement over potential new product offerings. Either way, the amount and variety of information under Facebook’s control continues to expand rapidly.

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