Facebook unveils location-sharing service

Facebook on Wednesday unveiled Places, a new feature that will allow users to broadcast their location and track their friends’ movements.

Places may eventually open up new financial opportunities for Facebook through partnerships with retailers and restaurants, and location-specific advertising. But the launch will be scrutinised by privacy advocates concerned that the social networking company is increasingly reckless with sensitive user data.

“The prospect of it is pretty interesting from a marketer’s perspective, and pretty scary from a consumer’s perspective,” said Ken Johns, digital strategist at advertising agency Brunner.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief executive, said Places would allow Facebook users to “share where they are in a social way” and “see where your friends are around you”.

The service is optional, and will allow users to “check-in” to locations from offices, to bars, to parks. Users can also tag their friends in posts, flagging their whereabouts as well. The service will be available first in the US through Facebook’s mobile website and a new iPhone application.

Places thrusts Facebook into the race to develop location-based social services, among the hottest categories of business development on the web.

Start ups including Foursquare and Gowalla are attracting media partnerships and attention from investors. Yelp, a consumer review site, has also launched a location feature in recent months.

Users, however, have not signed up to these services en masse and they remain niche offerings, catering to just a few million early adopters. With Places, a large chunk of web users will instantly have the opportunity to share their location online. And Foursquare, Gowalla and Yelp are in partnerships with Facebook for the Places launch.

That may represent a breakthrough moment for location-based social networking services. “This could be the tipping point for location-based services,” said Dave Marsey, senior vice president of media at Digitas, the advertising agency. “The real question is what value the consumer is going to get from this.”

To reach that tipping point, “they’re [Facebook] going to have to convince users this is something that they want to participate in,” said Josh Martin, analyst at Strategy Analytics. “They will need some kind of incentive programme for this to take hold.”

Marketers are salivating at the prospect of knowing the real-time location of even a fraction of Facebook’s 500m users.

“From a marketer’s perspective, the holy grail is to talk to people on an individual basis,” said Mr Johns. “This gives us another piece of information to connect with people in real time.”

But at launch, Facebook said there were no immediate plans to make money from Places.

Facebook is already under fire for being insensitive to users’ privacy and pushing members to make more information public. Adding delicate information such as a user’s location to the mix will add a new layer of complexity to the social network’s already dense privacy settings.

“There are definitely going to be privacy concerns,” said Mr Martin. “There [are] hundreds of millions of people that don’t want to share their location, whether it’s because of privacy concerns or because they’re of a different generation and don’t care.”

Facebook looked to head off the debate by stressing that Places was geared towards existing networks of friends. ”Places is not about broadcasting your location to the world but about sharing your location with your friends,” said Michael Sharon, Facebook product manager.

“We have a comprehensive set of safeguards and controls to really let users control their privacy on Places,” said Mr Sharon. The product is being launched with granular privacy controls, similar to those Facebook launched earlier this year, to ensure that a user’s location is shared only with their friends.

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