August 20th, 2010

Friday Face-Off: Facebook Places

By Kyle Morich

Like everyone else this week, I’m here to talk about Facebook Places. Please, before you close the browser tab with contempt, give me a chance.  Today the Habit Lens launches a new series called Friday Face-Off, where we look at a topic from two perspectives.  Today, I pit my personal views of location-based social networking against my professional ones.

Facebook Places

Facebook Places: The Personal View

Okay.  I’ve been asking this question since FourSquare showed up a little over a year ago, and have renewed the call since Facebook Places was announced Wednesday night, but why should I use location-based social networking?  What’s in it for me?  First of all, I could already tell my Facebook friends or Twitter followers where I was via a status update (though without GPS verification I could have lied… for some reason).  Second, I see no legitimate personal benefit for using these services beyond A) satisfying general curiosity, B) abating utter boredom, or C) showing off.

This isn’t a question of privacy.  I know full well that I am in control of my online persona and that anything I ‘share’ is a tacit acceptance of scrutiny and examination from some or all of the public domain.  My personal boundaries will not be violated if I let everyone know that I’m at the Georgia Dome for a Falcons game or shopping at the Kroger Fresh Fare, nor will they be if an over-zealous online socialite does so on my behalf.

George Carlin once lamented in an early 90s rant about one-hour photo finishing, asking “How can you be nostalgic about a concept, like, a little while ago?” Are we really to the point now where it’s become so necessary to document and share our lives with each other that time must actually be taken out during an experience to update our location and immediate thoughts?  I’m guilty of the occasional update from a baseball game or a concert, but it’s always the result of Condition B, boredom. And while I’m sure I’d feel a flicker of excitement to be “Mayor” of my local Target up the street, I know that the vast majority of my online friends don’t really care, and deep down, neither do I.

Facebook Places: The Professional View

During the Facebook privacy brouhaha several months ago, I heard this very apt summary of the social networking giant’s business model:

“Facebook’s customers are not its users.  Facebooks customers are advertisers.  The users are their product.”

Facebook Places is not a product for its users, it’s a product for its advertisers.  The growing success of and influx of VC funding to FourSquare and Gowalla were becoming too much to ignore, and Facebook had to make a move to reassert their dominance in the social media world.  Even though FourSquare’s estimated active user base is only around 1.4 million globally, the revenue potential for new advertising campaigns and location-based targeting was enough for Facebook to jump in.

What I liked about FourSquare was this: they understood reinforcement.  Like the best video game designers, they recognized the value of intermittent and scheduled reinforcement and shaping behavior.  The badge rewards for ‘checking-in’ at various locations, the occasional discounts offered by retailers, and the jackpot rewards of being named “Mayor” of a particular location were wonderful reinforcers to drive habitual use of the service and generate mountains of lucrative marketing data for advertisers.

Facebook is even better positioned to truly bring location-based marketing into its own.  Hundreds of millions of users each day habitually check their friends’ status updates, flick through their pictures, and comment on their posts.  There is something intrinsically rewarding to being part of a social interaction, having the immediate feedback from friends and acquaintances, and the visual confirmation that you exist in other people’s lives.  Facebook can harness their abilities here with Places, but they need to be smart, careful, and prudent.  Facebook’s first goal needs to be training its users to use Places.  Users need to use Places repeatedly, and get reinforced through selected rewards and social recognition, to make the process habitual. Just like status updates seemed weird and unnecessary four years ago (“Why do my friends care what I’m doing?”), Facebook needs its users to not flinch when it asks them to share where they are.

Advertisers and businesses are going to be clamoring for access to Places users, handing out coupons and signing visitors up for newsletters and launching a whole slew of contrived offerings to be a part of the location marketing party.  Our brains are remarkable at shutting out noise and relegating routine or unimportant news to the background.  If Facebook gives its customers (advertisers) too much access to an under-developed product (non-habitual users), Places will never reach its full potential.


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