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Facebook Places: One check-in to rule them all

The launch of Facebook Places means start-ups like Foursquare are forced to rethink their business plans--and consumers are forced to rethink the entire idea of a location-based "check-in" service.

There was something very much in the vein of Utopian science-fiction fantasies to Facebook's announcement of "Places," its location-based "check-in" product that it launched on Wednesday night. (CNET was the first to report its impending debut last week.) In short, Facebook not only wants to be the digital sovereignty toward which all other geolocation apps direct their figurative roads, it also wants to be the Web's own omniscient historian.

"Too many of our human stories are still collecting dust on the shelves of our collections at home," Facebook vice president of product Christopher Cox said as he explained the sociological rationale behind Facebook Places, a "check-in" service that more or less replicates the basic functionality of existing location-sharing start-ups like Foursquare and Gowalla, as well as lets those services tap into Facebook's new Places API to integrate with it. Facebook Places will not just collect location check-ins, it'll allow for messages and comments and pictures to be aggregated around them, creating a sort of "collective memory" that places a layer of Facebook-published narrative atop the physical world.

"Those stories are going to be placed," Cox said. "Those stories are going to be pinned to a physical location so that maybe one day in 20 years our children will go to Ocean Beach in San Francisco, and their little magical thing will start to vibrate and say, 'This is where your parents first kissed.'"

Now, let's toss aside the awkward usage of the phrase "little magical thing will start to vibrate" and any invariable knee-jerk reactions implementing the "Wayne's World"-Steve Carell tagline "that's what she said." What Cox meant is important.

Facebook Places' debut marks a shift in the rhetoric of the location-based services market because of the company's vocal connection of geolocation to permanence and memory, rather than the language of exciting immediacy (see what your friends are doing right now! In real time!) touted by the likes of Foursquare and Gowalla. Whereas Foursquare handled check-ins as a digital embodiment of the frenetic pulse of the city around you--fittingly, it was developed in the madcap, bar-saturated grid of downtown New York, where there is always somewhere more exciting you could be--Facebook looks at it as a three-dimensional chronicle.

Many had said that technology, Cox related, was threatening the phenomenon of the "third place," a term coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg to refer to a spot of social gathering and interaction that was differentiated from the workplace and home. Digital advancement, technophobes claimed, would force us to be "sitting there in these little bubbles," Cox explained. "It's like (dystopian animated film) 'Wall-E' with the fat people rolling around in their bubbles."

Right. So, of course, Facebook will make everything better?

"The entire goal of this product, and in general what we're trying to develop here, is that the 'third place' is alive and well and that technology can actually be the thing that pulls us away from the TV and out to the nightclub or out to the concert or out to the theater or out to the bar," Cox said. "Technology does not need to estrange us from one another."

Is this brilliant, or creepy, or both? Is Facebook Places a benevolent archivist, the Web's new equivalent of Orwell's Big Brother, or Tolkien's Eye of Sauron? Whatever your point of view, one thing's clear: start-ups like Foursquare have been using that "technology can bring us together" pitch for well over a year now.

For rivals, too close for comfort?
Indeed, some of the immediate reactions from many in the digerati voiced discouragement (though not outright surprise) that Facebook had seemingly "ripped off" the likes of Foursquare without developing anything particularly innovative on its own, something that seems like Microsoft's old practice of effectively snuffing out start-ups with its sheer muscle--and, do recall, the House That Gates Built invested $240 million in Facebook in late 2007. Others (also unsurprisingly) started highlighting privacy concerns, specifically the fact that Facebook will allow people to check their friends in for them. Granted, Places product manager Michael Sharon explained that there's an extensive armor of privacy controls preventing this from causing a ruckus, but it's not going to quell the concerns of the usual suspects.

"Facebook immediately opened up location data to applications and Connect sites," a blog post on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, a frequent Facebook critic, explained. "This means that your friends' apps may be able to access information about your most recent check-in by default as soon as you start using Places. Even if you've already gone through your settings to limit the info that apps can access, you should do it again--you may find that you've been defaulted into sharing your location info with apps."

But Facebook may need to force-feed this feature in order to prompt ubiquity. The massive social network, with 500 million members around the world, is offering its own breed of check-ins in addition to corralling those from third parties--who, at launch, include Foursquare, Gowalla, business reviews site Yelp, and location-based gaming site Booyah. With a basic check-in functionality now available on Facebook, a service like a Foursquare or Gowalla will now be forced to develop additional features and branding to draw users to their own offerings (for Foursquare, local tips and "game mechanics"; for Gowalla, travel-oriented "passport stamps") rather than just letting users "check in." In other words, they are now applications operating on top of Facebook.

And Facebook's ties to its new start-up rivals in the geolocation space run deep. Sharon, a soft-spoken native of South Africa, joined Facebook in 2008 after having co-founded a New York-based start-up called Socialight. A mapping start-up that implemented a rudimentary form of geotagging long before most phones were equipped with GPS, the tiny Socialight also employed developer Naveen Selvadurai, who last year left Socialight to work full time at the new company he'd just co-founded--Foursquare. Despite their prior professional ties, CNET has heard that Sharon didn't give Selvadurai and his team many hints as to what Facebook was working on.

Sources close to the situation told CNET that Foursquare had wavered on whether it even wanted to be part of the announcement after having been kept in the dark for so long--and after the start-up had been snubbed by Facebook during acquisition talks. Facebook, sources said, had offered $120 million to purchase Foursquare. Foursquare wanted about $150 million; Facebook then walked away. The decision for Foursquare mobile business development lead Holger Luedorf to appear at the Facebook Places launch event, and for Foursquare to hence appear alongside Gowalla and Yelp, literally happened at the eleventh hour.

Notably absent from the whole affair was Twitter, which also launched a geolocation feature earlier this year and which, like Foursquare, was the target of a botched acquisition attempt on Facebook's behalf. And there was no mention of Hot Potato, the small "check-in" service which has either just been acquired by Facebook or is extremely close to it, depending on who you ask.

There are many questions that remain about Facebook Places; about its impact on services like Foursquare, about its eventual mainstream reception, about the kinds of data that Facebook plans to keep alive and weave into whatever "memory" it envisions. But its general aim is clear. Facebook has made one attempt after another to seize the Web's complex map of social connections; in the manner of a Gilded Age railroad monopoly, to not necessarily own the destinations but to control the routes of passage and communication. Here, it has made an audacious attempt at extending that dominance into the physical world--and, in a gesture that some might characterize as imperial hubris, into history.