Why Facebook Places is going nowhere

Only 30 million people have used Facebook Places, one report finds. If that sounds impressive, consider that it represents just 6 percent of Facebook users. And that’s not the number who use it. That’s the number who have tried it.

In my own unscientific poll, the majority of people who tried Facebook Places stopped using it. That might explain why Foursquare users, who number just 4 million, check in way more often than Places users do.

When Places first hit, I forced myself to check in both on Foursquare and Places but quickly stopped using Places. After all, Foursquare posted on Facebook just the same. And checking in other people never felt right. So, what’s the point of Places?

The problem is that Facebook users don’t understand what Places is for. The early-adopter types jumped on Foursquare, and these active users remained loyal, apparently. The reason is that Foursquare feels useful … and fun.

For people who enjoy chasing badges, Foursquare rewards them with more creative rewards, many of which are the result of partnerships with the likes of Zagat and others. New “Super Duper Swarm” and “Epic Swarm” badges (for 500 and 1,000 user check-ins at a single event, respectively), as well as a just-in-time-for-the-election “I Voted” badge, keeps the service feeling alive and fresh.

And Foursquare is doing better with third-party buy-in. It was on Foursquare, for example, that the first International Space Station check-in took place. And it was via Foursquare that Conan O’Brien chose to offer a “Conan badge” for spotting his annoying promotional blimp.

Companies such as Mazda, Starbucks, the National Hockey League and others are all using Foursquare to launch high-visibility promotions.

Sure, Facebook has announced some deals and partnerships of its own. But they don’t have the popular-culture appeal of the Foursquare announcements.

In other words, Facebook Places has no mojo. No juice. No momentum.

In still other words—from the Facebook biopic The Social Network—Facebook Places isn’t cool.

Why Zuckerberg needs to watch The Social Network’ again

In Aaron Sorkin’s entertaining character assassination of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he accidentally revealed Zuckerberg’s visionary side. In the movie, silver-screen Zuck kept holding out on the addition of advertising to Facebook in the face of pressure from partner Eduardo Saverin to monetize.

His idea was that Facebook was growing because it was cool and that advertising would make it uncool before it reached some kind of critical mass. Zuckerberg, fictional or otherwise, was dead right.

That’s why a rumored new program makes no sense. An allegedly leaked e-mail obtained by All Facebook says that Facebook is working on a program called Facebook Deals.

The new marketing program works by enabling businesses to reward people who tag other people at the location. Unlike on Foursquare, where businesses generally reward repeat visits, Deals would reward people for tagging the greatest number of other people.

One example of how the program might be used is that McDonald’s might offer a free order of fries if you tag three friends at a location. You’d have to bring the friends, and they’d have to approve your tag.

The whole scheme sounds like a mistake to me. And the reason is the whole coolness factor that made Facebook what it is today.

First, the Facebook-using public hasn’t decided that Places is cool yet, especially compared with Foursquare. It’s too early to start aggressively monetizing it.

Second, I just can’t see this brand of social check-in taking off. There’s too much involved. You have to drag your friends over to the participating establishment and convince them to be tagged. That’s a tall order.

And I’m not talking about the fries. The result will be very low buy-in numbers by Places users, which will make the service look even less cool compared with Foursquare, which I think has a more successful model.

Finally, it creates an uncool social obligation. To get that free order of fries, my friends have to agree to be tagged … at McDonald’s! People use Facebook to brag about their lives, and when my cheapskate friend wants to reveal the ugly reality of my life for a freebie, I’m even less likely to use Places.

People don’t want to be put in this situation. The only way out is to stop using Places and tell your friend: “Oh, yeah, uh, I don’t use Places anymore.”

Mark Zuckerberg the CEO needs to listen to Mark Zuckerberg the fictional movie jerk and withhold monetization of Places until it’s truly “cool.”

[Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture.]

This story, "Why Facebook Places is going nowhere" was originally published by Computerworld.

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