The Facebook Location Perspective, Then and Now

Update: Facebook Places launched at a press event on the evening of August 18. It includes some of the features we predicted, but not all. Our full coverage is here.

Back when I first got a Facebook account as a college student in the spring of 2004, it had a location feature. There was a space on each user’s profile that automatically indicated the dorm cluster from where they’d last logged in, based (I guess?) on their IP address. It was not opt-in. It was creepy and cool and voyeuristic to watch people check in on the site from around campus. It was way before its time.

Tonight, Facebook is expected to finally launch Facebook Places, its overdue formal entrance into the location space. We’ll be there at the Palo Alto, Calif. HQ covering the press event.

Though the folks at Facebook have clearly thought about the concept of location more than once in the past six years, this feature has been a long time coming, and probably not just because of a generic case of software delays. My read on the situation is that Facebook is launching this feature to cover a market but may be missing the big picture.

Facebook Places may well have a lot in common with where Foursquare wants to go, but it will be an effort to tie together many products Facebook already has. Some other things I’ve heard the company is working on for the launch are:

  • Collaborative photo albums created around events (this is what Divvyshot, the company Facebook acquired in April, did)
  • Better calendaring tools
  • The ability to indicate your presence at something that’s more temporary than the location of a business — for instance a sports game — and connect with people there. (This is what Hot Potato did, the startup acquisition that’s become public knowledge but Facebook hasn’t announced yet after the deal got dragged out over investor terms). Hot Potato CEO Justin Shaffer will likely be at the event today.
  • An API to include other services’ check-ins, and a way to include such data in platform applications
  • Business participation. Facebook Places should tie to Facebook Pages, but Facebook tends to avoid including advertising in its new features at launch
  • Careful privacy controls: Facebook is well aware of its Achilles heel

Facebook has been talking about adding location features in general terms for far too long, and even dabbled with the idea of buying Foursquare. It will be somewhat of a relief for the company to finally get something out the door for public consumption after all these years.

Of course, Facebook’s 500 million active members will make any product it launches formidable. (Foursquare might be growing fast, but it only has 2 million registered users.) Yet the offline world is not a core Facebook competency, and it shows. One fundamental strength of Facebook is it connects you to real people with real names, but it doesn’t connect you to the real world. The Facebook vision is about being social on the web, not offline.

Facebook Places will try to address that weakness, but it doesn’t represent a fundamental shift in Facebook’s thinking, or, most importantly, the agenda of CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

For proof, see a recent comment by Zuckerberg submitted through the company’s new Facebook Questions product. A user asked “What is the future of social networking?” Zuckerberg replied:

I think that the future of social networking isn’t another website like Facebook, but instead that almost everything we do online will become social in some way.

For example, the last generation of games was played on Xbox (s msft) and Nintendo, but many more people now play social games with their friends online. In the next few years, I think we’ll see social versions of every major application online — everything from shopping to news.

I basically think that almost every application is better when it’s designed to be used with your friends, so I’d bet that this will be a big trend in the development of social software and the internet over the next five years.

Zuckerberg’s vision is lucid, but notice he’s talking about “online,” “social software” and “the Internet.”

Angel investor and entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar then replied to the question and identified the omission left by Zuckerberg’s single-minded focus on the web:

I would take it one step further from what @Mark Zuckerberg said. The future of all physical objects and locations is to be socially connected — a physical graph of interconnected objects and people and referenced with location, time and contextual relevance. So not only will everything online become social but everything offline will go online and become an important part of our social graphs. When 1) people, 2) places and 3) objects seamlessly become part of our social graph and experience we will reach optimal efficiency in searching, connecting, understanding and gaining further value from each others lives.

So for today, expect Facebook Places to contain some cool social features related to location (and expect them to be far less stalker-friendly than the dorm cluster locator of 2004). But understand that location is not the core Facebook interest or competency. It is something they’ve come to see the value in based on the growing strength of the market.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Location: The Epicenter of Mobile Innovation

Image courtesy Flickr user armigeress.

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