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Facebook Places: It's About The Platform, Silly

Perhaps it's not the best thing to write a post about Facebook Places, when I haven't even used it yet (it hasn't been rolled out yet in the Czech Republic, where RFE/RL is based.) But here goes.

There's been a lot of inevitable (and justified) grumbling about this new Facebook feature which, by using geolocation technology, allows you to "check-in" to certain places and inform all your friends on Facebook where you are: i.e. Luke just arrived in Starbucks, or Luke just arrived at the train station. Foursquare and Gowalla have been doing this for a while, albeit with much smaller audiences.

Brian Ries, writing on The Daily Beast, seemed to sum up a lot of the general feeling:

Perhaps not surprisingly, a growing number are not excited about this data dump infiltrating their Facebook page. When a friend of mine checked into his workplace using Facebook’s Places early Friday morning, his girlfriend soon commented, “I’m already finding this annoying,” smeared right there on his otherwise innocent notification update. And when Jenna Wortham, a technology writer at The New York Times checked in with a, "Testing, testing," Lindsey Weber, a freelance writer and blogger answered with a long, "noooooooooo." Another friend of Wortham’s, San Francisco-based Dwane Swanson, wrote simply, “dislike."

I can understand the annoyance factor as I regularly "hide" people who feed their Foursquare check-ins into Facebook, but it does seem a little early to write off Places just yet. For one, Facebook users will quickly learn to disable the functionality (with a bunch of "How to turn off Facebook Places" virals). They will grumble, but they will remain loyal, just as they have done with practically every new product Facebook has ever introduced.

The main reason not to write off Places though is that it's primarily about the platform and all the cool things Facebook is hoping third-party developers will make using the Places API (the interface that allows it to interact with other software).

Yes, now, Places seems a bit pointless (" Yep, in the office now; yep, just got in the car; now I'm buying gas"). But when all those user-generated geolocation restaurant apps (like Yelp) start being popular, or when people sign up for Facebook's HotDate app (where you can find a date within three kilometers), then there will be less grumbling. Check-ins have to enhance a social transaction, otherwise they don't make sense -- at the moment in the stripped-down version, they don't.

Geolocation, for long rumored as the Internet's Next Big Thing, is likely to spawn some pretty neat things, but also some pretty scary things. Imagine a geolocation service that allows people to alert Facebook users within a certain location that their pet has gone missing (the online equivalent of posting those posters around the neighborhood). And then the bad: vigilante groups on Facebook geotagging the houses of suspected pedophiles.

It will be interesting to see how Facebook deals with the latter, as it has tended to be fairly inconsistent in which groups it allows and which it doesn't.