Some things are simply inevitable.
The sun will come up.
Charles Barkley will say something unintentionally hilarious.
Facebook will emulate what it doesn’t buy.
On the latter point, Wednesday evening Facebook debuted Places. The premise and execution of Facebook Places is remarkably similar to the first two sentences anyone may use to describe any number of check-in applications: It’s a way to share your actual location with others online; it also allows you to observe where others have checked in. Where many other applications seek to go from that starter definition, be it MyTown with games, Foursquare with tips, Gowalla with stickers, or ShopKick with deals, Facebook has simply stopped limply (but maybe effectively) at the first point of entry.
There’s a few other tricks to Facebook Places, and the following video, dripping with a sincerity that suggests they have suddenly figured out something others haven’t, demonstrates them:
Also inevitable is that Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal will be given a test run before most other humans. Unlike his usually predictably estatic review of Apple products (generally done in time for Steve Jobs to use an actual Mossberg quote as a part of his Keynote presentations), Walt was actually a bit matter-of-fact about Facebook Places. Not cold or harsh, just… well, “Meh” would probably be the most effusive meta-adjective I’d use.
This is because what may become the most short-term-advantageous thing about Places is what it does for others, including those other check-in services. The APIs that could come streaming out could hook into and help fuel the growth of any number of companies Facebook as threatened or tried to buy recently, several of whom (Gowalla, Foursquare and Yelp) actually appeared in some form on stage with Facebook for Places’ debut. And yes, businesses can claim their “Place” via a Page as we and others mused months ago.
And what about long-term? Well you can better believe Facebook didn’t debut this to merely dip a toe in. Cross-platform geo-location ads, sacks of data on visitations and total domination of the “place” space is clearly a mid-term goal. Actual quote from Zuckerberg: “…certainly you can imagine these things in the future.”
We have been recently musing on the concept of “place” (including, “How Location Could Change The Future of Pages” last March) insofar as the web toys with tying itself to real-world geographies and the inherent opportunity and fear laden in those watching this wrestling match happen. But one thing we’ve always said about Facebook — their nearest, truest competitor in a spiritual sense was never MySpace, but Windows. They want to be the start, constant and end of the web for many people — the entry point in. And for many, they are. So now marry location ontop of that and you can begin to see how powerful they could become for the general public. For and to the general public, I should say. Being in Facebook, as a valid location that people actually visit in real life as well as “Like” could become the equivalent of having your name and address in the phone book in the 80′s and being a store that’s in the Mall. You want to be “seen” there- and now you can, by friends who aren’t even nearby to see you.
This, of course, begs the privacy question. But if we rest for a moment and assume that this is about who you allow to see your location, we can hopefully still talk about “place” and Facebook’s role in it in a rational fashion. I could choose to not tell a single friend where I was on Facebook and still find it incredibly valuable to know that a restaurant I hear about in Richmond, VA called “Strange Matter” has been visited by several of my friends, I could reference it in a Status Update and get real recommendations of what to eat there and tips such as bringing your own quarters for the vintage arcade games. 3/4 of that scenario already happened pre-Places, but now I could potentially verify that it’s a cool place that several of my less chatty friends have also patronized recently. It becomes an early indicator for me in a single search, allowing me then to pursue more info through other means (Yelp reviews, call-outs for other recommendations on Twitter, etc.).
Facebook Places doesn’t change the game as much as it does solidify it, make it whole and, likely, make it ubiquitous. What it does more than really innovate is fire a cannon in a battle previously fought by slingshots as it brings its half-a-billion active audience into the check-in game. But don’t be distracted by the battle to see whose or what type of check-in system wins. Instead, start to look ahead, with us, at what this will mean for the intersection of real and web location in the years ahead.
UPDATED August 19, 2010: Not that Facebook Places is available in #RVA just yet. #Fail #FacebookPlaces, #Fail.
One last note: Notice that Places logo? As TechCrunch points out: “It’s a 4. In a Square. Yeah.“