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Facebook adds 'Places' check-in feature

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; 7:05 AM

Facebook is following in the footsteps of younger social-networking sites by adding a "Places" feature that lets you share your real-world location with online friends.

As company representatives explained at an event at Facebook's Palo Alto, Calif., offices and wrote in a blog post, you'll be able to tap a "Check In" button to announce your presence at a physical location to your Facebook friends. Your check-in will then appear on that location's "place page," on your profile and in your friend's News Feeds.

Your pals, in turn, can tag you as being with them, after which you can remove that tag--similar to the way Facebook's photo-tagging feature operates.

Using this new feature requires using a version of Facebook's iPhone application, due out Wednesday night, or logging into its touch.facebook.com smartphone site on a phone that supports GPS auto-location. On the site, you should see a "Places" tab on its home page--though I had to wait a couple of hours to see it appear on an iPhone and an Android phone.

facebook_places_friends_iphone.jpg

Facebook's Places lacks the competitive aspects of the check-in features at such smaller sites as Foursquare and Yelp; you don't collect virtual badges or become the "mayor" or "duke" of an establishment by showing up there enough. Your only reward is seeing where your friends are, where you've been, and what earlier updates were posted from that spot.

(As always, the same disclaimers apply: Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook's board of directors, while the newspaper and an increasing number of Post staffers, myself included, use Facebook for marketing purposes.)

If, however, you're already in the habit of checking into restaurants or bars on Foursquare or Yelp--or the competing services Gowalla and Booyah--you can connect those actions more directly to your Facebook identity through the new Places feature. (Representatives of those companies appeared at Facebook's event to talk about their collaboration but did not discuss the odds of their employers getting wiped off the map by Places.) A post on Facebook's developers blog explains how other sites and applications can hook into Places, and what sort of limits they'll face in doing so.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other company officials emphasized the privacy controls built into Places. The default settings for any check-ins are to have them visible only to your Facebook friends--a more restrictive default than most of the site's standard privacy settings. There are no automatic check-ins, and on an iPhone I had to tap through two permissions dialogs to use Places. Finally, your friends can't start tagging you as being present until you authorize that activity.

But--just like in Foursquare--the ability of users to create new locations means you risk having your home become a hot spot. If enough people check into a location, it will become visible to all Facebook users nearby, at which point you can only request that your abode be removed from the database.

I don't have a problem with the check-in concept in general; I enjoy Foursquare, although I'm awfully picky about who I'll accept as a friend on that site. But the vastly wider scope of Facebook makes me a little leery of Places.

On one hand, it's not always that hard to see which Facebook friends are near you, considering the verbosity of so many Facebookers. (Not to mention that, as a new dad, my most frequent nightspot is the grocery store.) On the other hand, using Places wisely requires further customization of Facebook's privacy settings--unless you never accept friend requests from casual acquaintances, it would be foolish to broadcast your whereabouts to everybody you know on Facebook.

The big unknown is how many Facebook users will adopt this and make it part of their routine on the site. At the moment, I only see three check-ins, two from Facebook employees (I've smudged out their names and photos in the screen grab above).

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