It was perhaps the worst kept secret since, well, Apple's iPhone 4. Facebook today is announcing a new feature, called Places, that allows users to share their locations with friends - and allows their friends to be updated in real-time.
The goal, of course, is to take the virtual relationships that we've recreated with old friends on Facebook and bring them into the physical world, too. And, if you really start to look beyond that, you can imagine the interaction you might have with local businesses who will know that you're in the area - and might want to entice you into their businesses with a coupon or some other promotion.
At a pretty crowded event at Facebook HQ today, the company didn't spend much time talking about details. CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a brief introduction of the product, a product manager came out and talked about some specifics - emphasizing how important privacy is to Facebook and its users.
And then it was time for presentations from partners - Gowalla, Yelp, Foursquare, Booyah. Of course, it was all very ooh-aah as the companies talked about integrating Facebook places into their products. The partners were excited - "super-stoked," as the feeling was described by one.
I couldn't help but feel somewhat less-than-excited for Foursquare, which had an exec on stage to talk about how Facebook Places validates what Foursquare is doing, how their vision for "check-in" services is the the next phase for social networking and computing. Still, I couldn't help but think that the exec was almost delivering a Foursquare eulogy.
I'm not much of a Foursquare user nor am I a big fan of telling anyone on the Internet where I am at any given moment - other than my last "I'm at Facebook HQ" status update on my Facebook page. With that said, I realize that there are people who would love to connect with friends at bars, restaurants, shopping malls and so on. But I'm not one of them.
There were a few instances when the execs on-hand today made this service sound creepier than it needed to be. The idea that guests at a party at my home could turn my home address into a public "place" on Facebook and my only recourse is to flag my address to have it removed.
I also didn't like the idea of letting my friends "tag" me at their locations. If we're all a concert, for example, and a friend checks in with Places, he can "tag" the people who he's with - just as if you were tagging a person in a photo. Yes, I have to give my permission first and yes, I can also "untag" myself - but who wants to be a party pooper like that?
And throughout it all, I couldn't help but wonder how long it takes for the API to be used for a "Who's not home?" app for burglars. I'm just sayin'...
Still, it seems that Facebook went to great extremes to maintain some forms of privacy, notably by setting the default to "Friends Only" and allowing them to take it further and not check-in at all.
Initially, the service will only be available as an iPhone app or through a special touch.facebook.com web site - which the company says works really nice on Android and other smartphones. Apps for other devices are coming soon - but . And, by default, the service will set to "Friends Only." For now, it's only available in the U.S. The rollout begins immediately.
Finally, I'll note that today's launch event was one of the most bizarre I've ever attended. The team rang a gong and someone literally pulled a giant "launch" switch to make it official. Quirky, maybe but when your user base is 500 million strong and you can bring together a large crowd with just a couple of days notice, then you get to hit all the gongs you want, I suppose.