FACEBOOK’S 500 million-plus users will soon be able to track friends’ whereabouts, as the world’s largest Internet social network adds technology to increasingly tie its virtual world to everyday life.
The new Places feature, which began rolling out last Wednesday to some users and goes across the US within weeks, is touted as a tool to help users share where they are, figure out who is in the vicinity, and check out happenings and services within the same locale.
The addition of so-called location services to Facebook opens new revenue opportunities for the company but also presents it with privacy challenges.
Places will be accessible via an Apple iPhone app or from the social network’s own mobile version on touchscreen smartphones.
“This is not about broadcasting your location to the world; it’s about sharing where you are with your friends,” said Michael Sharon, product manager for Places.
Users will be able to declare their whereabouts whenever they want, thereby opening themselves up potentially to offers, suggestions or advertisements about nearby businesses. On Wednesday Facebook said it had no immediate plans to pursue such money-making opportunities.
Users can ‘check in’ from their smartphones, broadcasting their location to their own Facebook friends. Their whereabouts are then flashed through the network’s popular status updates.
Users can look up the locations of friends who are similarly checked in, either via updates or on a separate web page — or tag friends who happen to physically be with them, thus declaring where they are. But with privacy in mind, Facebook will allow users to block Places functions through a comprehensive set of privacy controls and other safeguards.
The new services could help Facebook grab a bigger piece of a local advertising market driven by small businesses, like restaurants and stores.
The vast size of that market, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars a year in the United States alone, has attracted online companies like Google and Yelp.
The feature could let Facebook eventually target users with ads based on their location, or offer special coupons when a user nears a certain business, supplementing the $700m (€545m) to $800m (€623m) that Facebook generated in revenue last year.
Privacy has been a persistently thorny issue for social networking companies, which must balance users’ concerns about how much of their personal information is made public with the need to generate revenue by sharing information about users with advertisers.
In May, Facebook introduced tools to give users more control over what personal information is shared on its service, following criticism from many privacy advocates.
Google Buzz, a microblogging service for broadcasting short messages to friends and contacts, was faulted for lax privacy settings as soon as it launched in January, a stumble from which the service never recovered.
“They want to make sure they’ve done their homework because privacy does become a concern right out of the gate,” said Michael Gartenberg, a partner at consulting and analyst firm Altimeter Group. “They don’t want to introduce this and then have to come back and fix it.”
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