By Sree Sreenivasan
DNAinfo Contributing Editor
The next front in the social-media wars is geolocation, telling people not just what you're doing, but where you're doing it. Facebook launched a full-scale invasion into this new territory last week with their new "Places" feature.
Facebook Places mimics service provided by smaller players — Foursquare, Gowalla, and Loopt — where users "check-in" via cellphone at a specific location (say, a restaurant or a theater) to tell their friends where they are. Folks you know, and some you don't, can be alerted to your presence and choose whether to meet up with you. In theory, that restaurant can also offer you a drink special for bringing in new customers nearby.
While some of you might think this trend marks the moment when social media jumped the shark, major media outlets and other businesses are looking to cash in on the impulse people have to overshare.
Right now Facebook Places works best on the iPhone, with Blackberry and Android/Google versions coming soon. The launch of the service, expected for months, means that Facebook wants a piece of this fast-growing space and that it just might have the power to dominate it.
As DNAinfo's Ben Fractenberg wrote last week, Foursquare hasn't shied from the fight, with a founder taking to Twitter to belittle Facebook's efforts. “Call from my 86 yr old grandma: Hello. I want to know if this Face-Book is like yours. It sounds like Four-Squared, but without the fun,” read one tweet from Dennis Crowley. Any concerns that the arrival of Places will slow Foursquare's growth have yet to be come true, as Crowley posted the following this weekend: "We had our 4 biggest days, back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Closing in on 3m fast!"
Three million is an impressive number, but Facebook's got a better one: 500 million. And that means you can check-in with people you already sorta know, rather than dealing with new passwords, new protocols and new people on Foursquare or another new service. The idea that people would rather do everything on one platform hasn't quite panned out, as Twitter has continued to grow even though Facebook has a lot of Twitter-like features.
One of the reasons Foursquare has gained traction is that it is really a game where users are crowned "mayors" of particular places if they check in more than anyone else. That game feature hasn't shown up yet in Facebook and will be necessary if Places wants to replace Foursquare in the long run.
Geolocation has potential for news organizations, too, as demonstrated earlier this year after the foiled Times Square attack. In the days that followed, there was more than one false alarm, and the Wall Street Journal used a Times Square "check in" on Foursquare to alert others in the area that there was an evacuation.
Editors can also use geolocation to help confirm eyewitness tips from the scenes of news events. That doesn't mean there won't be hoaxes or that the systems can't be fooled, but it's a step up from the e-mails and SMS tips we have now. For other uses for journalists, see "additional articles" below.
Geolocation's promise of sharing specific information has its downsides, of course. For example, parents should be concerned about young kids' privacy.
The American Civil Liberties Union's Northern California chapter was quick to take aim at Places:
Facebook has made some changes to its regular privacy practices to protect sensitive location-based information, such as limiting the default visibility of check-ins to “Friends Only” and providing notice to you each time you are checked in by a friend. We are happy to see Facebook take steps to protect this information and keep it under your control. However, we have serious concerns about other privacy protections and controls associated with Places.
Additional Articles About Geolocation:
Mashable: 7 Ways Journalists Can Use Foursquare
ZombieJournalism: Uses for Foursquare in news reporting
NYTimes.com: Who Elected Me Mayor? I Did
Mashable: Facebook Places: A Field Guide to place
What do YOU think? Let me know via Twitter @sreenet or via the comments below.
Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia Journalism School professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.