article

08.21.10

Facebook's Annoying New Feature

The social networking behemoth is getting into the geolocation game. But do you really want to know where your entire roster of so-called "friends" are at all times?

If my own friends and followers on Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter are any indication, a growing population of users are not welcoming the sudden influx of "Places" notifications taking over their newsfeeds.

Places, which was introduced Wednesday night as Facebook's latest feature, allows users to tell their friends where they are and who they are with just by "checking in" with the system. The concept, called geolocation, is familiar to users of both Foursquare and Gowalla, who have been doing for two years now what Places just started. But Facebook, which dwarfs most other social networking websites, changes the game simply because of its size.

Facebook has approximately 500 million users compared to Foursquare's 3 million. And whereas before, geolocation concept was mainly used by the hyper-active social-media set, Facebook could push the fad mainstream as its users get comfortable with broadcasting their real-time location to friends.

This means more updates in your Facebook newsfeed -- that stream of status updates, photos and links that let you know when somebody gets married, went on vacation or read something interesting. Now, with Places, Facebook will be telling you in real-time whenever your Aunt Betsy goes to Starbucks, or your former roommate — who you haven't spoken to in years — arrives at his cubicle in the morning.

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 was mostly joking,” Weber told me when I asked how she felt. “But I am actually a little nervous about Facebook Places.”

When I posed the question to my larger network on Facebook, asking if the Places notifications were an unwelcome annoyance in their newsfeeds, I received an overwhelming "Yes!" from my friends and former colleagues.

"Disabled foreva!," wrote Lori Dolinger, referring to the option to disable the Places application from accessing and appearing within her Facebook account.

John DeCicco, who manages an independent rock band from Brooklyn, wrote, "I used it while I was out last night, and felt like kind of a dick for clogging up people's feeds with my whereabouts."

Sure, people get upset nearly every time the engineers at Facebook get in there and rearrange the furniture, but something feels different this time. Something a bit dirtier. For those of us in the New York City tech scene, Foursquare is our biggest success story.

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.”

It grew out of NYU, is a darling of the tech press, and, after turning down an alleged $125 million acquisition offer from California-based Yahoo, closed a $20 million investment in June, allowing it to stay in New York. (The company's now "worth $95 million pre-money," according to an Andreessen Horowitz rep, or $115 million post-money, according to Business Insider.)

Then in comes Facebook. The behemoth network, already stinking of evil from waves of botched roll-outs over the past few years, introduces a new feature that does exactly what Foursquare does — for the most part. 

Sure, there’s no gaming element. No mayorships. No tips, to-dos, or quirky little badges. But for the most part, it’s a carbon copy. Zuckerberg cheated. Or worse: he stole. 

So it’s no surprise that those who align more closely with Foursquare feel a bit resentful with the Places launch. Unlike times prior, where users didn’t get a warning or see major changes coming, we’ve been expecting this intrusion for months. 

But where some may find themselves wishing they could hit the “dislike” button on Places, others say these are two completely different networks with their own unique purposes.

Foursquare is built on the premise of congregation. You check in where you go — restaurants, bars, concerts. Facebook, on the other hand, was build on the premise of connection — it helps you "connect and share with the people in your life," as they put it.

The natural roll out of Facebook features over the past few years makes Places seem like a natural fit — first, it was Who You Are. Then, it was What Are You Doing. With Photos, it was Who Are You With. Now, it's Where. The problem is that during the Who and What phases, you made connections with people who you might have a pretty tenuous relationship with, and as such, you might not really care what it is they're doing every minute of the day. If you think you're uninterested in your old high school tutor’s baby pictures, think how much you won't want to know that they just ate the Olive Garden for the second time this week. 

Whereas friends on Facebook come from all walks of life — your professor, your mom, an ex-boss, your 7th grade soccer teammate — friends on smaller, newer services like Foursquare, and Gowalla, are curated face-by-face, selected mostly from people who you actually see in person. "I got yelled at by tagging on Facebook Places," says Veronica Carvallo. "Nobody yells at [me in] Foursquare land."

"Foursquare's advantage over Facebook Places is going to be that it started out as a location-based service rather than an all-encompassing social networking tool like Facebook," says Tom Miesen, a marketing executive who blogs on advertising and technology.

In fact, the user bases on the two networks are astoundingly different.

“My Facebook friends are completely different from my Foursquare friends," says Kasey Skala, an executive in corporate and online communications for a large salon franchise, in a comment on Techcrunch.  "Do I really want my mother and aunts and other family members knowing where I am all the time?”

“Facebook is more of a casual social-media playground,” adds Adam Gorode, a New Media Strategist at Glow Interactive. “Foursquare, Twitter, etc. are for hyper-users, whose usage generally annoys most Facebook users.”

It’s this concept of managing feed clutter that is getting the most chatter -- from those on the left, distraught over the Places notifications, to those on the right, ready to welcome Facebook’s new feature with open arms.

Andrew Baron, CEO of Rocketboom, Know Your Meme, and Magma, told me that when it comes to issues like this he tries to imagine what everything will be like three years from now.

“I think the various social elements like events, places, posts, shouts, diggs, check ins, etc. are going to stream out in one long stream, kind of the way it’s going now on Facebook, where you do in fact have a master feed somewhere.”

To my point that people may not want to see check ins from their extended network of non-friend acquaintances, Baron says, “I agree and we will need to be able to filter that stuff out, and reorganize the data feed based on personal preference. Thus, over the next few years, we are going to demand a lot of filtering features, and I believe Facebook and other app developers using the Facebook API are going to deliver on this.”

In the end, Foursquare saw record signups on Places' launch day — presumably, Facebook users decided to give those other check-in apps mentioned in the news a try. Perhaps the new users will stick with it, and the service will grow and grow now that Facebook has shined a 500-million-watt light on the concept of geolocation.

For those worried that Foursquare, Gowalla, or any of the other geolocation service might be potentially threatened by Places, let us turn to words spoken by Dennis Crowley's 86-year-old grandmother in a phone call to the Foursquare founder Thursday night, as relayed by @ Dens himself in a recent tweet.

"Hello. I want to know if this Face-Book is like yours. It sounds like Four-Squared, but without the fun."

Brian Ries is a Philly-born senior editor at FREEwilliamsburg.com and tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.