Facebook, Foursquare and the Future of Social Location

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A lot of people have commented this week on Facebook’s decision to change their approach to location. For those of you who have not followed this topic, Facebook has decided to move away from the idea of checking in to locations and more towards the concept of tagging your location to your updates, photos and videos. This has sparked the media to immediately turn this into a Foursquare vs. Facebook battle.

It isn’t.

Foursquare had done some pretty amazing things over the last few months. They have an extremely devoted following (I had an opportunity to attend a meetup in London and saw how men in their 20s and 30s hung on Dennis Crowley’s every word like a 13 year old girl being serenaded by Justin Bieber). They have grown their user base in leaps and bounds. They have deployed feature after feature with each playing a major role in defining their core offering. All in all, Foursquare has done some great things and they are getting increasingly better at doing them. I have a lot of faith in the organization moving forward.

But they aren’t Facebook…and that is ok. Each company has their own value proposition.

Facebook is, well,  Facebook.  With a user base that is likely over 800 million people, the idea that they only need 2% of their users to use their location functionality to exceed Foursqaure’s user base puts things into perspective. (you can click here to see the Daily Dot article where this was quoted)

Stories vs. Places

At the heart of a check-in is a place (or more recently an event). Foursquare’s model is to use the place as the central component and then contextualize that place with other information like tips and photos. Facebook on the other hand has always had the story as the core of their system. These stores are told through updates and other types of media. The context of the story is provided by linking people and places.  These are two very different models.  What is optimal for one model will not necessarily be optimal for the other.

Check-ins vs. Tagging

The most important thing to remember about checking in and tagging is that they are simply input mechanisms. That is all.  They are both approaches to identifying location.  That is the key here. There are lots of different ways to associate a person, place, and point in time with location. As the industry continues to grow and mature more options will become available. The future is about context.  It is about getting you the information that you want, when you want it.  Location is one of the best ways to provide that context.

Past vs. Present vs. Future

One of the points raised about Facebook’s tagging approach is that there are very few limits on how location plays a role in the story. Whereas check-ins are primarily a snapshot of a moment in time, the idea is that a tag is far less restrictive. You can tag locations when discussing upcoming trips. You can tag a location when rehashing a childhood memory with a friend. It does provide a little more flexibility but Facebook must either make the process of tagging a location as simple (or even more simple) than tapping a check-in  button OR create enough value through tagging that users are happy to take the extra time to do it. It should be interesting to see how they do this.

About one year ago, Foursquare was facing at a situation that no company would envy.  With the launch of the Places product and the associated check-in strategy, Facebook had them and their competitors clearly in their crosshairs. Foursquare did not throw in the towel but instead focused on their niche and making their product better. They not only buffered themselves from Facebook but gained considerable marketshare over direct competitors such as Gowalla, SCVNGR and Loopt. I definitely admire them for that.

Contrary to much of the sentiment online, I do not believe that Facebook’s changes were in any way reactive to Foursquare’s strategy or recent growth. I feel that all Foursquare did was simply shine a spotlight on this area and give Facebook the incentive to do what they do best: evaluate user experience and adjust accordingly. You have to respect a company as large as they are that can be so nimble. It is deeply embedded in their DNA. It is for this reason why I could never count them out like much of the media has tried to do this week. I think that the concept of tagging locations is the right way for them to go and the impact of adopting this approach will be another huge opportunity for them.

This is not a Facebook vs. Foursquare topic. This is clearly a tale of two different models. One thing is for certain though: whether you check in through Foursquare or tag your Facebook stories, Twitter tweets, Instagram pics or any other emerging technology, location is playing an increasingly important role in our social lives.


Ben Zifkin

Ben Zifkin

Ben Zifkin is the CEO of Hubba. He has spent the last 15+ years advising some of the world’s largest brands and retailers on how to enhance their business through technology. Ben is a member of the Young President’s Organization and on the boards of Ladies Learning Code, HackerYou and The Upside Foundation.
Ben Zifkin