Will Facebook be the One Ring for Location?

Facebook announced some changes to its privacy guidelines today, but that wasn’t what captured the interest of the blogosphere and other media outlets. The really interesting thing about the blog post by Facebook’s deputy general counsel Michael Richter was what he said about location, and the implications for potential location-based services and features that might be added to the social network. As anyone who has been following the tech sector (and particularly SXSW) over the past six months or so knows, location is the new black, and probably a bunch of other colors as well. And one of the big questions on the minds of many is: What happens to the location-services market when Facebook decides to enter? The company is expected to launch location features at its annual f8 developer conference in April.

The reality is that while Foursquare and Gowalla and Brightkite have well-established user bases and have built out many features — and arguably benefit from focusing on doing a single thing well, as opposed to being a hydra-headed monster like Facebook — there is too much fragmentation in the market for the current state of affairs to continue. Already, services such as Check.in (from Brightkite) are emerging to try and bring some semblance of order to it all, and others such as Digg architect Joe Stump’s SimpleGeo are providing tools that any company can use to add location-based features.

So what did Facebook say about location exactly? Well, not much. The blog post says:

The last time we updated the Privacy Policy, we included language describing a location feature we might build in the future. At that point, we thought the primary use would be to “add a location to something you post.” Now, we’ve got some different ideas that we think are even more exciting. So, we’ve removed the old language and, instead added the concept of a “place” that could refer to a Page, such as one for a local restaurant. As we finalize the product, we look forward to providing more details, including new privacy controls.

There are some interesting hints in here, which everyone is busily trying to parse, like ancient Druids pawing through the entrails of a chicken trying to foretell the future. It seems obvious that Facebook was originally thinking about simply tacking on location to status updates, so that you could tag your wall post or photo with location data — in other words, the same way Twitter apps do now. But instead, the company appears to be looking at how location can be integrated into the pages that users, and particularly businesses such as restaurants, are publishing on the network.

So when location becomes part of the features that Facebook offers businesses, what could users do? They could interact more closely with a fan page for a specific company, for example, by allowing Facebook to use their location to tag content such as likes, comments, photos, and so on. And they could make it easier for users to find their friends who also happen to be at those locations, and connect with them — and, most importantly, allow for extremely targeted advertising and marketing pitches. So the big question is: Doesn’t that kind of functionality make it harder for Foursquare and Gowalla and even Yelp to convince people to use their specific services? Why bother, when the one social network all your friends use offers something pretty similar? Badges and leaderboards and all of those features would be trivial to reproduce if Facebook wanted to.

It’s possible that Facebook might decide to make it easy for Foursquare and Gowalla and Yelp and Brightkite to integrate their services with the site and allow their users to check in or connect through Facebook as well. But that would still leave much of the power in Facebook’s hands, and as a result much of the potential for monetization too. Either way, it feels like Facebook becomes the one ring to rule them all where location-based features are concerned (although I should note that this view is hardly unanimous — Topix CEO Chris Tolles, for one, disagrees).

Apart from the location-based comments made in the blog post, meanwhile, Facebook also seems to be suggesting that certain corporate partners will be allowed to grab some of your details from your Facebook profile when you visit their website outside of Facebook, even if you haven’t explicitly allowed them to do so. All Facebook has a good overview of the potential implications and so does Marshall Kirkpatrick at Read/Write Web, although the company’s exact plans are still somewhat of a mystery.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user mosippy

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