Facebook Places: The Real-Time Web Without Search

As the internet has evolved and devices have proliferated, people have begun discovering the benefits of real-time information sharing. To date, they have primarily accessed this information with real-time search tools, such as through Twitter, or lesser known Facebook search engines like Booshaka, OneRiot, and Open Facebook Search. Google itself has made real-time results a more prominent part of its search engine.

Facebook Places has the potential to change how people find and use real-time information. Instead of chaotically searching various location service venue pages, keywords, or hashtags, users can now find information about real-world events and locations on Places pages thanks to the Places API.

Here’s an example of how that works in action. The SF Street Food Festival was held in San Francisco this weekend, in the heart of a city full of social media users. Beyond featuring a wide variety of great food, it also showcased how people share and consume real-time information.

Waits at some vendors fluctuated from zero to 30 minutes in length through the day, much longer than in previous years when the event wasn’t as well publicized. While many knew the status of the lines at any given moment, finding the most up-to-date information online wasn’t easy. Foursquare and Gowalla venue pages had lots of check-ins, some of which included wait length information. Some people published to Twitter using the unofficial #sfstreetfood hashtag, others “at-replied” @sfstreetfood, while the less savvy simply wrote San Francisco Street Food in their tweet. But none of these sources had all the information.

Facebook Places will. Using the write API, data from across location services can be aggregated to a Places page. Unlike hashtags, which can easily differ from each other and thereby splinter the data, Facebook keeps everything tidy by suggesting the most popular instance of a Place if you try to create a similar one. While there’s no Twitter integration yet, someone could create an system that converts hashtags into Places API write calls. While Places check-ins are currently only visible to friends regardless of your setting, the fact that there is a privacy option to share check-ins with everyone means Places pages are equipped to become public repositories of real-time information.

Next year, users could instead find out about line lengths by viewing the SF Street Food Festival Places page, where they’ll see check-ins with descriptions of the lines from across services, aggregated as they happen. If the creators of the festival have claimed the Place page or merged it with their official Page, it could show official news as well. Since the Places page is a destination linked to from news feed stories, the “Here Now” and “Nearby Places” lists on mobile interfaces, and Facebook’s suggested match-enabled search bar, traffic will all flow to this one central page.

The norms of Facebook Places use are still developing. Many are currently making low-content, description-less check-ins, but warming up to deeper, wider sharing of location info will take some time. Judging by the millions who leave their status updates visible to everyone or publicly post about their current location to Twitter, there are plenty of people willing to create and share this real-time information. But we won’t need search to it.