With the newly unveiled “Places” feature, Facebook looks to catch up with pioneer services like Foursquare and Gowalla which take advantage of location aware devices, namely smart phones and iPads, to allow people to learn about the whereabouts of their friends and more easily connect in real spaces as well as virtual spaces.
With a touch of a button, smart-phone and 3G iPad users can now alert their Facebook friends that they are at a restaurant, theater, or museum. They can “tag” friends who are there with them and broadcast their location on Facebook. Given the high percentage of people with Facebook accounts, it will be interesting to see how much this feature gets used and whether it helps people meet face-to-face as much as it has helped people socialize online.
I imagine Facebook will be very proprietary about the data they collect on where people like to meet while using this functionality. One of the nice things about Twitter is that it allows us data geeks to look for interesting patterns in conversations. Researchers for instance figured out how to use Twitter data to spot the potential early stages of a flu epidemics by analyzing what people are tweeting in different regions of the country (while the data does not contain personal data, rough location is known by the cell phone tower receiving the tweets).
I see a trend away from making this data accessible to others since information about how and where people socialize translates into advertising dollars. It is unfortunate because this same data could be a treasure house of information about how people interact in their communities and provide us with insight on how to replicate good places and improve bad places.
On the positive side, the more location aware functionality becomes available through Facebook and other social networking tools, the easier it becomes for planners and organizers to spread the word about community initiatives and find creative ways to engage followers in place-based conversations and activities.