The big market Facebook is missing out on

Facebook’s ascent to become the world’s largest directory of individuals and local businesses is a stunning achievement. With more than a billion users, the scale of its reach is simply staggering. But while the service is still unrivaled as a means of staying connected with friends, its offerings are conspicuously hobbled by a surprising gap: namely, a feed for local-specific content. It should be a no-brainer for Facebook, or an incredible opportunity for enterprising competition.

Location-based services to date have focused primarily on user reviews (Yelp, Foursquare), photos (Instagram) and discovering people nearby (Places, Highlight). What we don’t have yet is a widely used service that allows freeform sharing in the style Facebook does—and one tuned specifically to your location. There are many obvious benefits for users: from learning about local news and events, to finding nearby friends, to discovering people like you in your vicinity.

There are many ways to do this but I’ll describe one hypothetical approach that mirrors what Facebook already uses for sharing with existing friends—I’ll call it Neighborhood. Imagine a feed that exists alongside your personalized feed (or is interspersed with it). Posts there would be visible to other people in the vicinity, with filters for distance and demographics, making this a way for users to interact with neighbors and share news about what’s going on. Sharing with your neighbors would be easy, as you’d just select an option to copy a post from your friend feed to the Neighborhood.

Our mockup of Facebook Neighborhoods concept. Rani Molla/GigaOM

This is an area where Facebook has a unique advantage and where things get really interesting in terms of functionality. Because Facebook knows so much about everyone’s location and preferences, users could define their specific “neighborhood” in a number of dimensions and affinities, such as distance, shared interests, political affiliation, number of likes, and so on. Some users might be very specific in tuning their neighborhood feed, for example, to highlight posts from people with a shared religious or political affiliation, while others may listen broadly to a firehose of data from whomever is nearby. Your neighborhood feed would become an ambient stream about what’s happening near you, as well as a way to passively discover new people, places and events—not to mention services.

While social networks for neighborhoods exist, none have really thrived. Nextdoor, for example, has had a hard time recruiting users at scale (4 of 1200 households in my San Francisco neighborhood are online), while Twitter, which has supported location-based tweets for sometime, lacks the type of intelligent filtering Facebook employs to keep noise levels low. In general, location-based services are difficult to build because of the up-front investment needed to acquire and retain users in every location. (I once prototyped something similar to this, but abandoned the project because of this concern.) Clearly none of these issue affect Facebook, as its user base comprises nearly a fifth of the earth’s population, and the company has all of the data needed to ensure that there is activity wherever the service is offered from day one.

In terms of user value, consider the potential upside for local businesses that may currently struggle to find value in a Facebook presence. Each neighborhood feed would become a veritable neighborhood newspaper and online forum of sorts, a perfect place to run ads, which can be precisely targeted by neighborhood, user demographics, and even time of day. Meanwhile, users who are listening to neighborhood feeds are likely to be searching for information or things to do, and therefore are good ad targets.

What’s in it for Facebook? Highly targeted local advertising revenue , and novelty (look out Craigslist!). Ad revenue is a no brainer, but all the more so in this case as it could alleviate Facebook’s notorious difficulties monetizing mobile. More importantly, though, the service would evolve the way we use Facebook, while also altering the way we deal with people in our real-world communities. In essence it would transform Facebook into a utility for community-level communication.

That’s an environment that’s set up for serendipity, and that often leads to interesting places.

Brian McConnell is a startup entrepreneur and publisher of Translation Reports, a buyers guide for translation and localization technology and services.

Main image courtesy Sergej Khakimullin/Shutterstock.