Facebook’s 500 million-plus users will soon be able to track friends’ whereabouts across the US. The new “Places” feature begins rolling out on Wednesday to some users and goes across the US within weeks.
The tool help users share where they are, figure out who is in the vicinity, and check out happenings and services within the same locale.
The feature will put the social network in competition with the increasingly popular location services like Foursquare, Gowalla and Loopt, which allow consumers to use their mobile phones to keep track of their friends whereabouts and earn rewards for frequenting brick-and-mortar businesses, have caught on among technology aficionados.
Facebook and Yahoo both unsuccessfully sought to acquire Foursquare earlier this year, according to media reports.
Foursquare and Gowalla executives popped up onstage alongside Facebook on Wednesday, saying they will team up with the social network and tailor their own services to work alongside its “Places” feature.
“Places” will be accessible via an Apple iPhone app that Facebook designed from Thursday, or from the social network’s own mobile version on touchscreen smartphones.
“This is not about broadcasting your location to the world, it’s about sharing where you are with your friends,” said Michael Sharon, product manager for “Places.”
Users will be able to declare their whereabouts whenever they want, thereby opening themselves up potentially to offers, suggestions or advertisements about nearby businesses.
Facebook on Wednesday said it had no immediate plans however to pursue such money-making opportunities.
Users can “check in” from their smartphones, broadcasting their location — anywhere from a restaurant to a park — to their own Facebook friends. Their whereabouts are then flashed through the network’s popular status updates.
Users can look up the locations of friends who are similarly “checked in”, either via updates or on a separate Web page or tag friends who happen to physically be with them, thus declaring where they are.
But with privacy in mind, Facebook will allow users to block “Places” functions as part of a comprehensive set of privacy controls and other safeguards.
The new services could help Facebook grab a bigger piece of a local advertising market driven by small businesses like restaurants and stores. The vast size of that market — estimated in the tens of billions of dollars a year in the United States alone — has attracted online companies like Google and Yelp.
The feature could let Facebook eventually target users with ads based on their location, or offer special coupons when a user nears a certain business, supplementing the $700 million to $800 million that Facebook generated in revenue last year, according to people familiar with the matter.
The plans have already come under scrutiny by Gawker journalist Adrien Chen who wrote on his blog: “At the Facebook places launch event, an engineer equated tagging someone in a check-in with tagging someone in a picture. Not quite the same thing. Someone has to point a thing at you and take your picture. But anyone can go to the bathroom, tag you in a check-in, then a significant other/spouse/boss/stranger sees it and: Boom. Your life is ruined.”
“A picture does not automatically tell someone exactly where you are, with whom, when, and whether you are having an awesome time, despite the fact that you should be [somewhere else],” Chen continued.
Get Netimperative updates on Twitter