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Facebook Places could meet skepticism on college campuses

About 5 percent of U.S. web users have used a location-based online service.
About 5 percent of U.S. web users have used a location-based online service.

Facebook’s opt-in feature that lets friends check each other’s locations could be useful for colleges and universities tracking the most popular campus destinations, but social media experts say students haven’t yet embraced geo-tagging in any form.

Facebook announced Aug. 18 that its 500 million members can now use the company’s Places application on their smart phones to tell friends where they are—a local restaurant or movie theater, for example—much like the geo-tagging services Yelp, Gowalla, Booyah, and Foursquare.

Places requires a free download update to the Facebook mobile application, and once users “check in,” they can show their Facebook friends where they are. Members can block the general Facebook population from seeing their location.

A Facebook member can “tag” friends using the (at) symbol, and the friends can respond by revealing their location if they accept the tagging request.

“Only your friends can see when you visit or are tagged at a place, unless you have specifically set your master privacy control to ‘Everyone,’” Michael Eyal Sharon, a Facebook representative, wrote in a statement on the company’s official blog. “You also have the choice to set more restrictive customized settings.”

Menachem Wecker, co-founder of the Association for Social Media & Higher Education, a group based at George Washington University, said colleges that have connected with current and prospective students through Facebook could use the Places application to track campus hot spots and foot traffic patterns.

The application could be a “good way to monitor who checks in on campus [so] they can identify prospective students, staff, and faculty members, [and] they can see what locations are frequented by students, and a variety of other really useful statistics that will only help them better serve their constituents,” said Wecker, a writer for George Washington’s online news service.

“All it takes are a few really plugged-in and energized faculty, staff, and students to start a digital revolution on campus, and I expect that to be the case with Facebook as well.”

Facebook took a proactive stance against privacy advocates who have heaped criticism on the social media giant in recent years as the company’s security settings have come under intense scrutiny.

“With Places, you are in control of what you share and the people you share with,” Sharon wrote on the Facebook blog. “You choose whether or not to share your location when you check in at a place. … When you are tagged, you are always notified.”

Still, privacy advocates, social media consultants, and some in higher education said expanding geo-tagging services could pose security risks to students with Facebook accounts.

Shel Israel, author of two books on social media and a social media consultant to businesses and corporations, credited Facebook for making Places an “opt-in” feature. But a student who allows a large Facebook community of friends to track his or her foray through a local downtown area could be inviting trouble.

“That’s a red flag of danger, and messages like that go up all the time,” said Israel, whose latest book, Twitterville, hit bookshelves in September 2009. “It can create dangers that need to be remedied.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California released a statement just hours after Facebook Places was unveiled, criticizing the company for making it easy to opt in to the application, while a member would have to delve into his or her Facebook privacy controls to opt out of the program.

“Places allows your friends to tag you when they check in somewhere, and Facebook makes it very easy to say ‘yes’ to allowing your friends to check in for you,” the statement said. “But when it comes to opting out of that feature, you are only given a ‘not now’ option (a.k.a. ask me again later).”

The ACLU statement also said that a Facebook member’s “here now” list—showing other members where they are—isn’t a guard against others using the Places application.

“You can only choose to turn the feature on or off,” according to the statement. “If it’s on, any Places user who checks in at the same place can see you in the Here Now list.”

The ACLU also launched a Facebook Places Resource page warning users about the potential for privacy violations, and charging that “unless you unchecked every single checkbox in the application privacy settings (or turned Platform off entirely), Facebook will allow your friends’ apps to access your most recent check-in locations by default.”

Wecker said college students would continue to be among the most likely to opt into geo-tagging services like Places, although similar programs like Foursquare haven’t caught on with teenagers and 20-somethings like other social networking programs.

“There is certainly a loss of privacy that comes along with dorm and campus life, and I think college students are in the demographic where it is cool to tell peers where they’ve been, and to keep an eye on where their friends have been,” he said. “That said, I think there are many people … who shun geo-tagging for safety reasons.”

About 5 percent of U.S. web users have used a location-based online service such as Foursquare, according to a recent survey released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Drawing students to geo-tagging applications with rewards for visiting a certain location enough can attract rabid followings among some groups, Israel said, but because Facebook Places won’t have these gaming features, developers will have to update the program when users become bored by it.

“It’s highly addictive, which means people spend a lot of time on it,” he said. “If its popularity trickles off, the people who make the technology will find a way to adapt it in a way” that will give Facebook Places staying power on campuses.

On Foursquare, for instance, Starbucks has offered a $1 discounts to the “mayors” of its local coffee shops—that is, people who check in the most often—as a reward.

A close look at college students’ reaction to Facebook privacy policies revealed concern about online identities as news outlets pushed the issue to the forefront with increasing coverage in 2009 and 2010, according to a report released this month. Researchers based their report on a survey of University of Illinois Chicago students conducted during the 2008-09 academic year and the 2009-10 school year.

Privacy setting changes could have been “connected to the public discussions that took place about the topic between 2009 and 2010″—which included daily news items about personal Facebook profile information that could be accessed by any web user—or the privacy prompts Facebook launched in December 2009.

The researchers found that Facebook members who used the site frequently were more likely to adjust their privacy options, showing that “technological familiarity matters when it comes to how people approach the privacy settings of their Facebook accounts.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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