Facebook Knows Where You Are

The social network’s new Places feature will make it harder to lie to your friends.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

On Wednesday, Facebook launched Places, its long-rumored system to let you broadcast your real-world location to everyone in your social network. Click here for instructions on how to disable it.

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.

Is that a good thing? If your quarrel with Places is that it will make it more difficult to have an affair, you probably won’t win much sympathy. But you don’t have to be a cheating scoundrel to worry about the repercussions from Facebook Places. We all have to tell little lies every so often. At least I know I do, and I’m pretty sure you do, too. It’s Friday, you’ve had a long week, and you’d rather have a nice quiet dinner with your husband than go out to a club with your college pal who’s in town for one night. But you can’t tell her that you’re simply not in the mood; she won’t take that well. It’s better for everyone if you simply text her, “Bummer—got to work late!” Or say you’re invited to one of those terrible group birthday dinners that’s sure to cost half a week’s pay. The only polite way to get out of these, I’ve discovered over the years, is to feign being out of town.

Is this a lie? Of course. But it’s one of those lies that doesn’t harm anyone, not even the birthday boy. Indeed, not only is it not harmful, dishonesty in such situations is actually helpful. When you bend the truth in order to escape situations that would be no good for anyone, the lie is a social lubricant, keeping otherwise rigid relationships running smoothly.

But Facebook Places makes these fibs untenable. Unless you stay at home all weekend hiding from everyone, someone will spot you and tag you, and your lie about missing the birthday dinner in order to hike the Appalachian Trail will backfire. The easiest thing to do, then, is to turn it off. Facebook: adding minor inconveniences to your life one day at a time.

I suspect, though, that turning off Places will only be a temporary solution to the larger problem of the Web’s check-in culture. The more that we take to sites like Facebook and Twitter to tell the world about our activities, the more constrained we’ll feel in lying about what happened at a particular time and place. Over the last few months, for instance, I’ve had to be more careful about the excuses I give to companies about why I can’t make it to their lame-sounding product launch events. If I’ve offered such an excuse, I have to remember not to tweet about funny videos during the time I said I’d be writing a story on deadline.

Will this opprobrium against lying make me a better person? No. It will probably just make my life—and yours—a lot more annoying.

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