Location-based services have become the hottest social networking trend of 2010. Foursquare has streaked ahead of the pack by registering over 100 million check-ins at the time of writing, but Facebook, with its massive user base of 500 million and its unlimited resources, could deliver a new angle that pushes this trend beyond the early adopters and into the mainstream.
No ad to show here.
An attempt to take ownership of the location space by Facebook has been coming for some time. After talks to acquire Foursquare ended inconclusively, insiders say that the company went into lock-down mode and began developing its own software. The rumor mill heated up further when Facebook acquired Hot Potato, a New York based check-in service, and it is speculated the company might be using Hot Potato’s API as a platform to integrate location services into its ever expanding offering.
A location-based app has been one of the gaping holes in Facebook’s arsenal, and with a new social network from Google supposedly looming on the horizon, this new feature could give Facebook the edge it has been looking for. Google seems to be vulnerable and unsure of itself in the area of location based social networking with Latitude being considered far from a resounding success.
Anticipation of this development from Facebook has been growing for some time. There was speculation it would be announced at the f8 conference in April but it failed to materialise. Then the launch was supposed to happen in May, until it was postponed again due to the controversy which erupted over privacy settings. In June, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told developers that “we are finishing designing our application soon and hope to offer it soon.” Facebook’s privacy issues have eased over the last few months but will almost certainly flare up again once the company has the ability to pinpoint and broadcast a user’s location at any given moment.
Softpedia, a site that indexes technology information, predicts that the offering will be a completely new product that allows users to ‘check-in’ and add location-related information to photos and tags as well. “The interesting thing is that it is designed to also allow third-party services to tap into the feature through dedicated APIs. What this means is that people will be able to check in with Foursquare, Gowalla and so on, and their activity will show up on Facebook as well”.
This catch-all strategy would seem to be a sensible move for Facebook, allowing it to stamp its authority on the hottest trend in social media, without excluding users who are already committed to existing services. Geo-location applications rely heavily on integration with a user’s mobile phone. This will mean an increasing importance for Facebook’s mobile services, a trend that the social media giant seems to be perfectly comfortable with.
There are hundreds of small companies vying to become the dominant geo-location service, and it is by no means certain who will come out on top. But what seems clear is that merely checking-in to a location is not enough. The motivation to go through that process fades quickly and “check-in fatigue” sets in. Facebook needs to understand why people check-in, and it needs to make the process meaningful, useful and convenient. Otherwise there is literally no point and it will be studiously ignored.
But with the wealth of data about each of its users that Facebook has at its disposal, there is a good chance that it will produce a location based app that can add serious value to the Facebook experience, and will provide users with a richer, more detailed way of recording their lives.
The danger is that this new technology will become just one more way for marketing executives to spin a tighter web of influence around individual members, and take Facebook one step closer to becoming the most sophisticated marketing engine that the world has ever seen.