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Demystifying 'Facebook Places': The Essentials

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Lori Getz"Facebook Places" is a new application that allows you to "check in" via your mobile device when you reach a certain location. You can also see who else is checked in to that same location (or one nearby). Basically, it's a GPS-tracking device that allows others to know your whereabouts (and you to know theirs) at all times.

You can also leave comments and tips for friends. If you had great service at a particular restaurant, for example, or got sick there because you ate an undercooked hamburger, you can share your experience via your check-in. The application also identifies popular hot spots in the area, using GPS. You can read the comments left by others and discover new hangouts and social possibilities.

Why would anyone want to use it?

For many of us, the whole thing may seem totally ridiculous. (Why would you want anyone to know your location at all times?) But Facebook isn't the first to create such an application: There are several others, including FourSquare. In fact, when you identify your location on FourSquare, you rack up points, and if you spend enough time in one place, you eventually become the mayor of that location, earning discounts and even some freebies.

While "Facebook Places" isn't yet combining businesses with patron discounts, I'm sure that's on the way. For now, "Places" is a way to enhance the social experience. Let's say you are at the mall picking up a few items while the kids are in school. Suddenly you see that your best friend is checked in at the same mall, so you send her a quick note inviting her to lunch. No need to dine alone!

Is it safe?
If you set it up correctly and behave appropriately (as you should with most technology), I believe it is. But the user's behavior does matter!

First, the default setting for "Places" in Facebook is set to "Friends Only," meaning that only your Facebook friends will be part of the network that can see when you are checked in to a certain location. However, who are all these "friends"? Many of our children collect friends on Facebook the way I used to collect "Garbage Pail Kids" cards (i.e., keeping even the ones you don't really need or want). So if your kids are using "Places" and are friending strangers (as many are), then strangers will be privy to their location.

It's also important that you check your settings. From within your FB account, you will need to click on "Settings | Privacy Settings | Customize Settings". Don't stop at "Privacy Settings"; it's not there. Instead, look for the little blue text on the bottom left side of the window for the "Customize Settings" button. From there, you can make the necessary selections.

You will want to make some decisions about whether or not friends can check you into a location and how far the information will reach. Although overall I do like Facebook, I will admit, they have not always been the most transparent when it comes to their own privacy policies. So make sure you are well-informed, check your settings, keep your circle of friends tight and remember: In the end, it's what you post and with whom you share that matters.

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