While some folks might attribute the rumbling feeling that hit New York this afternoon to a 5.9 earthquake in Virginia, Betabeat now knows better. It was the tectonic reverberations of defeat, as Facebook quietly phased out the Places feature of its mobile app which everyone was screaming for months would kill Foursquare.
Checking in to a physical location is an intimate act. You’re letting friends and potentially strangers, if you share to social networks, that you’re home, at work, at a party or in another country. Facebook, as it did with photos, made it possible to tag other people, indicating when they were at a location with you. Like photo tagging, this spurred a high volume of early activity as superusers essentially forced other users to take part in the act of checking in.
But as part of sweeping redesign today that emphasizes privacy, Facebook is phasing out its Places feature for mobile. It’s a tacit admission that Mark Zuckberg’s policy of shoot first, ask questions later, of always pushing the boundaries of personal privacy, doesn’t apply to all markets. And as with many features introduced by Google and Facebook in the social space, a reminder that the size of your network doesn’t always guarantee you can co-opt a market from early movers.
Facebook still has a dog in this fight. In fact, MG Siegler thinks that, having killed Places, they are “doubling down” on location. We disagree. Yes, you can add your location to any status update. But without a dedicated check-in feature, it’s doubtful this practice will achieve meaningful scale.
Foursquare is now is a terrific position. They have the best check-in data across the nation and perhaps across the globe. They are growing fast and flush with cash. Backend problems have given way to a torrent of new features. Serious revenue seems to be within reach thanks to the addition of daily deals. There are already more than five billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide, and that number will grow, along with the percentage who own web enabled smartphones. The king of the check in is poised to sit atop a very big business.