Nice Try, Zuckerberg: Why Facebook Places Won’t Kill Foursquare

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Did Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg just put Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley out of business?
Photo: Zuckerberg: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Crowley: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Facebook has announced its long-anticipated foray into the location wars: Facebook Places, a service that lets you check in to geographic locations and announce it on your news feed. Place's unsubtle logo, a four within a square, makes it clear who Mark Zuckerberg is gunning for. Because Facebook is the hulking bully of the social-network playground, and because Places tries to trump Foursquare with new features, out came the inevitable headlines. "Facebook Places Will Crush Foursquare," opined PC Magazine. "Why Facebook Places Will Make Foursquare Into a Footnote," Xconomy chimed in. Tech pundits love a death match, but social networks aren't that simple. Here's why Foursquare may actually have an edge.

Reason No. 1: No one is actually friends with their Facebook friends.
There's a vast gulf between the people you actually hang out with and the people that Facebook thinks are your friends. The latter group is lax enough to let in frenemies, employers, employees, stalker exes, elderly relatives, your friends' parents, and that weird kid who moved away in third grade — people who you might not want to know that you're at a bar across the street from your office at noon on a Tuesday. As Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley points out, your Foursquare friends are whittled down to the people whose hourly comings and goings you actually want to keep tabs on — and vice versa. At least, in theory.

Reason No. 2: Facebook sucks at privacy
Mark Zuckerberg is a notorious privacy weasel, and with recent fiascoes in mind, Facebook made some concessions to potential concerns. Places' default setting only notifies your friends, rather than the entire Internet, when you check in on your couch on a Saturday night. But the tagging feature is another story. As Mashable points out:


The feature lets users select a “not now” option when friends attempt to check them in, but not a “never” option to prevent friends from attempting to do so in the future. Further, if you’re already a Places user, friends can just check you in automatically.

The ACLU also takes issue with the “Here Now” feature, which displays users that have recently checked in at a given Place. The problem is that the list is accessible to anyone else who is checked in to the same place.

Are you frightened? Not nearly frightened enough. Whatever, nerds, it's a tech post, we're allowed to quote Lord of the Rings.

Reason No. 3: Facebook is a service, Foursquare is a game.
Foursquare was designed as a social-networking game with prizes like mayorships and badges to incentivize obsessive check-ins. Facebook is just as much of a time suck, but Places ignores the dynamic social-networking crack. With a redesign of the game's mechanics due by the end of summer, Foursquare has a chance of being the fun check-in game your mom still doesn't understand.

Reason No. 4: "All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again."
Remember when Twitter came along, got popular, and then Facebook adapted its status-update feature and layout to be more like Twitter? What about when Tumblr came along, got popular, and then Facebook borrowed its "like" button to be more like Tumblr? Well, Twitter and Tumblr are still standing. With half a billion users, it's true that Facebook has achieved market dominance. It may even end what our friend called "the trail of peers" from social networks like Friendster, to MySpace, to Facebook. But that doesn't mean other companies that specialize in one aspect of social networking can't co-exist. The location wars are just getting started. It's way too early to pick a victor.

Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley: Still deciding on Facebook Places [VentureBeat]
Privacy Group Voices Concerns About Facebook Places [Mashable]
Facebook Places: A Field Guide[Mashable]