I have been thinking about Facebook Places over the past couple of days. Though I have yet to try it since it has not been made available in Canada, I am interested to see how it differs from Foursquare. Or, more accurately, how I will use it differently, how brands might use it differently and how it might co exist with Foursquare.
In my mind, I find it useful to view location based services and what they offer through two distinct lenses. The first is, of course, the lens of PEOPLE that use these services. The second is the PLACES themselves, the actual locations in which we check in. Sure, it is an obvious distinction, but here is how I see some of the implications when we think of these two lenses as they apply to what is happening NOW versus what has happened in the past, or THEN. In other words, how do these services play out in how they deliver value right now, in real time, and how does that differ from how value accrues over time? And how is that different for people and places?
Here is my rudimentary chart
I. Places, Now
This is the data that is made available in real time about what is currently popping at a given location. It is the basic role of Foursquare, as far as Places are concerned; animating the present. How many people are right here, right now at this place? Think of, say, a bar or club, and in many ways this is pretty obvious, people have been doing it with text messages or by telephone for ages. I know that as a DJ this is a behaviour that we saw evolve through the medieval ages (the 1990s, as people would rifle off text messages to their friends upon walking in the club to let them know if the party was happening.
Of course, the present is most definitely vital to location based services, but it is far from everything. Making use of the real time information that is being provided is a huge benefit for places, especially commercial places, but it is different than the long term breadth and depth of information and data that location services can provided. More on that below, but Yelp is just one starting point as an example.
2. Places, Then
I think of this as the layers of meaning attached to locations over time. Yes, much of this can be, and is, commercial in nature. Things like loyalty programs, CRM type stuff. Huge for business. But I think it is quite telling that the example used by one of the Facebook developers when Places was launched was of a beach that you were at, and discovered that this was the place where your parents had their first kiss. How sweet!
This hints at the long term project and goal that transcends the present, commercial or otherwise, and is the beginning of an underlying digital archive of information and meaning attached to physical locations, or places. I should say, it is a beginning, instead of the beginning. There is a lot of interesting work being done by the folks at Bing Maps, for instance, to develop rich layers of meaning on city maps. But given the sheer size of Facebook, this project can take off in a very natural, mass way, by making it part of the regular social stuff we share with friends.
So, in contrast to Foursquares game mechanic driven focus on what is going on now, I think Places strength will be in building meaning over time for locations. This is a lofty goal, but as long as the behaviour of checking in becomes adopted and second nature, it will happen given the sheer size of Facebook. Here is how Augie Ray from Forrester put it,
Soon, the local restaurant or hiking trail may have as rich a personality as do the people on Facebook, not because everyone has visited but because your friends have. And in the end, isn’t that what we really care about? Not who is mayor of our local coffee shop, but what our friends did, said, and liked when they were there before us
3. People, Now
When Foursquare launched, it was described as one part social city guide, one part mobile friend finder. For users, the mobile friend finder is exactly the benefit of real time location data. Knowing that your buddies are drinking at the bar around the corner from where you are right now is compelling, and at its best, this is where Foursquare and the other services shine. It is why unlocking badges is such an important engine to the game. And though you are encouraged to leave tips or reviews for your friends or others about places, it really is one of the lesser used functions. The focus is on the now, the game and collecting badges. Indeed, the whole idea of the resetting leaderboard underscores the inherent temporal logic of Foursquare.
4. People, Then
This is where Facebook has the biggest opportunity. The goal is to make checking in and the social relevance of location on par with the many other social behaviours and interactions we already share on Facebook, like tagging each other in pictures or posting on each others wall.
This is from the Facebook Places page
If you're already using Places, it's like you checked in yourself without having to do a thing. If you're not using Places yet, it's just like being mentioned in a status update
Putting the check in in the wider context of social behaviours we are already familiar with will be a huge accomplishment if they can pull it off, and if we actually adopt it as users, because we will have the potential of seeing a lot of rich meaning emerge over time for how we relate with places in the real world. This can be incredibly relevant to our friends and network.
Part of this relevance will be in the now, so that we know where are friends are in real time, but in contrast to Foursquare, that relevance will also grow and emerge over time as it is woven in to the fabric of our social behaviours. Or, as the clever Facebook put it, the where joins with the who, what, when. Smart.
Thinking back to that first kiss on the beach example provided by the Facebook developer, it is worth noting that he intended it to show how Places will be meaningful twenty years down the road, as we develop the shared social history of location awareness with our friends and network.
With respect to brands and commercial applications, I think that Facebook might have got it right this time around. Instead of jamming an intrusive and strange interaction down our throat, like Beacon, it is banking on first socializing the check in among users so that it becomes second nature. I suspect that they are purposely waiting to roll out commercial applications because job one is to acclimatize Facebook users to using location features and discovering the many ways that they can deliver value, over time, in ways that go beyond just collecting loyalty points or a free latte.