Facebook Places: A Guided Tour of Features and Privacy Settings

Facebook is currently rolling out access to its new Places feature to the Facebook for iPhone app and touch.facebook.com. Those with access can check in to nearby locations, view a stream of check-ins by friends, and add new Places for anyone to be able to check-in to. Those whose accounts haven’t been granted access can still use the iPhone app to view check-ins of friends. Everyone can currently see check-ins from friends in their news feeds, and edit their Places privacy settings.

Places appears as a button in the middle of the iPhone home screen and a tab on the touch.facebook.com home screen. Upon first using Places, users are prompted to allow it to use their current location. The Places home screen shows your latest check-in at the top, followed by a list of friends who’ve checked-in nearby, then a list of the most recent check-ins by friend regardless of location.

Clicking any of these entries brings up that location’s Places page. Here you’ll see a map of where the Place is, anyone who is “here now” (have recently check-in in there), total check-ins, and recent activity — a list of feed stories generated by check-ins to that place. These feed stories show who checked in there, anyone they tagged as also being present, a description by the check-in author if provided, and any likes or comments on the story. Users can also flag Places as having incorrect info, being abusive (such a someone creating a Place at your Mom’s house), being a business which has permanently closed, or being a duplicate of another Place. On Facebook.com, users can click through check-ins they see on their news feed to view a Place’s page.

Clicking “Check In” at the top of the Places home screen, or by clicking the upside down teardrop Places icon next to the status update publisher brings up a list of suggested nearby Places. Selecting one brings up the check-in publisher page, where a user can fill out the optional “What are you doing?” field, tag friends who are also present, and check in, as well as see people “Here Now”, and view previous check-ins to that Place. Checking in results in a post to your wall, the wall of anyone tagged, feeds of your friends, the wall of the Place, and you appear in the “Here Now” list to anyone, friend or otherwise, who checks in to the same Place. Check-ins peg you as being “Here Now” for 3-4 hours. There is currently no limit to how frequently you can check in to different Places, and you can check in anywhere within a half mile of your GPS-sourced location.

If you don’t see the Place you want to check in to, you can hit the “Add” or + sign to enter a new Place which will be available to the public for check-ins. You enter the new Place’s name, an optional description of it, and its location is set as your current location. Facebook shows users a warning when adding a Place to ensure they know that this data is public. Maps for Places are powered by Bing, so clicking a map on touch.facebook.com will bring up a separate mobile browser window with a Bing map. However, clicking a map on the iPhone app brings up Google’s in-Facebook app map interface with an option to open the Google Maps iPhone app.

Businesses can claim a Place by having an official representative go to the Places page and click “Is this your business?” This gives that representative admin access to the Place, which gains Page-like functionality such as the ability to list business information and post updates to those that Like the Places page, but not those who only check in. A Place can also then be merged with an official Page. This essentially migrates your existing Likes, photos, and wall posts from your Page to the Place page, and shows your Page’s tabs as a list of icons down the left hand column.

Privacy settings for Places data must be set on the fixed web version of Facebook.com. Places activity posted to your profile defaults to only being visible to friends. Other users can check you in at Places by default, but if you don’t have Places access you’ll receive permission emails asking you to allow friend check-ins until you click “Allow” in an email or enable them in your privacy settings. If you have Places access, you’ll receive a notification upon being checked in asking you to “Allow check-ins”, or “Not Now” – which means you’ll be asked each time you’re checked in.

Facebook has allowed sites using Connect and third-party applications to access your Places data and that of your friends if they acquire permission from you. Unless you have deactivated the Facebook Platform or unchecked all “info available through my friends” boxes in Application Settings, Places data will default to be available to apps of friends.

“Here Now” presents the biggest privacy concern, as currently you can only enable or disable being visible to everyone who checks in to the same Place as you. There is no granular control for this option. “Here Now” defaults to enabled if you have any of your existing privacy settings for other content set to “Everyone”, even something as benign as your favorite quotation or birthday. Since there seems to be no limit on frequency of check-ins, and you only need to be with a half mile of a Place to check in, someone could check-in all over town as a way of locating someone else who isn’t their friend.

Overall, Places presents a seamless way to share your location, and the ability to tag friends is an innovative differentiation from other location-based apps. Currently there is no way to view a stream of only check-ins by friends on Facebook.com. This ability to be at home and see that three friends are at a bar around the corner is key to getting people out of the house and using the app. If Facebook adds this, as well as granular privacy controls for “Here Now”, changes more data to be opt-in than opt-out, and lets users control Places privacy settings through the mobile interfaces, they may have found their new killer app.