September 03 2010

Facebook Places and serendipity


Most of you will be familiar with Foursquare, which allows its users to check-in at various places around town, and share favourite locations with their friends in real-time, while they’re already at the pub, the park or the gig. The point is to connect friends and places with one another – a bit of 'planned serendipity', the buzzwords so frequently tossed around by the architects of this and similar services.


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Facebook has decided to enter the location-sharing social media market. The company has unveiled a new feature it calls ‘Places’, which functions a little like Foursquare, but with more emphasis on sharing the quality and stories related to particular experiences, in particular places, with particular people, particularly. The first concern which normally emerges with applications like Foursquare and Facebook Places is, naturally, privacy: Is my every location being broadcast to complete strangers? Will I be digitally cased by prospective thieves who know when I’m home and when I am not? Or, rather than being held up at a late-night meeting in lieu of attending her exhibition opening, will my girlfriend accidentally find out that I’m in the pub with my mates through an automatic check-in notification? Don’t let the specificity of the last example mislead you – these are just a few hypotheticals to meditate on (but for the record, the late-night meeting DID take place).

Nevertheless, there’s no question that over-sharing in social media is the result of both the products and services themselves - and how they’re used. Shortly after Foursquare’s release, a campaign called ‘Please Rob Me’ launched. This site did nothing more than aggregate publicly shared check-ins upon its launch, but its name and the design of the website (for would-be robbers and thieves to see who isn’t home) illustrated its real purpose: to educate people on some of the more dangerous effects of location-sharing.

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Point taken. But defenders of services like Foursquare and the newly-minted Facebook Places also are right to point out that the privacy risk is generally based on how these services are used – and the way users configure their privacy settings. Besides, is it any more dangerous than telling someone you have a 9-5 job in town? Or updating your Facebook status to let people know you’re on holiday in Spain? In some ways, no - although the ability for Facebook users to check their friends in without their permission is one issue centred on by critics.

While discussion of these location-sharing services is generally dominated by privacy and the dos-and-don’ts of trumpeting one’s every movement (bowel included), it was actually the words “planned serendipity” used briefly in the marketing video demonstration of Facebook Places which struck me. In fact, they bothered me. Why, beyond the fact of their willful self-contradiction, did they bother me? The short answer: because serendipity is fun as it is.

Serendipity is one of the things in life I tend to embrace. How often is it the case that the best people you meet, the most interesting facts, the most engaging events, the most enjoyable and fulfilling jobs you undertake, are happened upon by a seemingly random series of events? Serendipity has also served me well when it hasn't produced the most satisfying or enjoyable outcomes. All the accidental wrong-turns and (so it seems at the time) dead-ends I’ve encountered in my life, figuratively and often literally, were enriching experiences because (I'd like to think) I've learned from them and grew as a result. Failure, which is almost never planned for, is one of the most enriching experiences one can have - even if it may not seem like that at the time.

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Colleagues and friends of mine claim they use Foursquare more often than not to see what places to avoid: a certain ex has checked in to the Starbucks down the street; a work colleague – to whom a report is owed – just checked in to the restaurant at which you were planning to eat; and so forth. The downside of being constantly aware of the location of your ‘friends’ (in Facebook parlance – not to be confused with actual friends, obviously) might be the impact this has on your choice to seek out or avoid certain spaces.

Contrary to the intent of its architects, Foursquare - when used like this - does exactly the opposite of what it originally set out to do: open the doors to all kinds of new experiences, and connect them through a variety of overlapping networks. Facebook Places attempts to emphasize the attachment of stories and experiences to various locations - like a running review of existence. The service hasn't landed in the UK yet so it's a bit early to tell whether or not it will be used in a more interesting way than comparable predecessors.

A close friend of mine who teaches adult education in Canada is trying to use Foursquare as a force for good, with fairly positive results. His students – all of whom have BlackBerrys, iPhones and Android devices – receive points each time they check in at a museum or art gallery around town, but they can only collect and exchange those points – largely in the form of Starbucks gift certificates – by volunteering a five to ten minute presentation on an exhibit or feature piece at one of these places. Many of his students do in fact visit these places – and use Foursquare to see if their friends are checking (in and) out (of) the same spots as well.

It’s not quite planned serendipity, but as a result of his little experiment the number of half-open bloodshot eyes visible during the early morning portion of his class has dropped by over half. Like myself, he hopes that someone will produce an application that brings serendipity back to location-sharing social media products - kind of like if stumbleupon, Facebook and Foursquare had a baby. Facebook Places is in the early stages of its conception - perhaps this is the child we've been looking for.

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