Facebook Knows Where You Are
The social network's new Places feature will make it harder to lie to your friends.
OK, I'm not recommending that you turn it off just yet. But this is how things go with Facebook. Places represents another in a series of big changes to how you interact with your friends, family, co-workers, and strangers on the site. It's sure to affect your relationships in amazing and awful ways, most likely both. Given the scope of this initiative, it's not paranoid to think about turning it off. I've got one particular fear about Places: With this system, Facebook becomes the honesty police, a social truth serum that will prevent you from casually lying to your friends, family, and co-workers about where you were, what you were doing, and whom you were with last night. This may sound like a good thing. It's not.
The idea behind Places isn't new. It works pretty much like Foursquare, the location-based startup that has attracted millions of users over the last year. When you visit a shop or restaurant, you can pull out your phone and "check in" to that location on Places, just like you can on Foursquare. Now all of your friends—or, given Facebook's variable privacy settings, possibly everyone in the universe—will know where you are. Foursquare fans say this is a good thing, because it promotes chance encounters—you'll know when your friends are hanging out at a nearby club—and it leaves a record of popular places around town—if lots of people are checking in at the taco truck on the corner, it must be delicious.
I don't think those people are exactly wrong. Even though I've never been interested in using Foursquare, I understand its appeal—it's not like the idea of telling people where you are is some crazy, new, outré social convention. But Facebook's system goes one step further than Foursquare and other check-in sites. When you check yourself in to a diner, Facebook also gives you the option of checking in other people. Facebook likens this to its photo-tagging system—just as you can tag your brother in a picture of you guys dining at Applebee's, you can tag him as being with you at Applebee's at this very moment. The privacy controls over location tagging are similar to the controls over photo tagging. You can control who gets informed when you're tagged at a particular place. You can also delete any specific tag, and you can completely disable other people from tagging you at all.
There are two obvious problems with letting people check in their friends. The minor one is fake tagging—what if someone tags you as being someplace you're not? (Facebook says it safeguards against this by requiring that your tagger check himself in to the same location.) The bigger problem with Facebook Places concerns the opposite situation—that you really were at a strip club or some other place where your friends or family might not want you to be. Gawker's Adrian Chen offers this pretty plausible situation:
You are at the bar when you are supposed to be at your girlfriend's crappy art show. You chat with your friend Jane, who checks into the bar and tags you: "At this awesome bar, just talked to [Your name here] about his Star Wars memorabilia collection!" Your girlfriend sees this on Jane's wall, walks over to the bar and dumps you on the spot.
Facebook has long been criticized for playing loose with our privacy, but in this case, "privacy" isn't exactly the right word. After all, when you went to the bar instead of your girlfriend's art show, you weren't being very private. You visited a public place, and you took the risk of being spotted by someone who could later get word to your girlfriend. You could easily have gotten busted without Facebook. The site, like everything else involving computers, simply made the process faster and more efficient.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Mark Zuckerberg by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.