With the launch of Facebook Places, users need to figure out if this service is a cool new tool or an overbearing feature best avoided.
The social networking site's new location-based feature , dubbed Places, was unveiled last week. The smartphone -based service is designed to let users tell their friends where they are, while also helping them track their own friends. The service also enables users to give away their friends' current location.
While a portion of the social networking world will think it's fun and cool to chart their travels around town, another segment of users thinks it's a sign of Big Brother watching.
"If someone isn't familiar with geolocation-type services , if they're not a Foursquare user or a Gowalla user, they should disable Places and then explore it," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst at Current Analysis. "Always be cautious with anything that could get you in trouble."
Dan Olds, an analyst at The Gabriel Consulting Group, said there are a many reasons why someone might be hesitant to use Facebook Places.
"Would you want a wide number of people to know that there's no one home at your house?" Olds asked. "And, couple that information with Facebook posts about how you put your dog in a kennel while you're on a two-week trip, that's just too much information to put out there. Many people think they're only sharing it with their friends, but they have to assume that they're sharing it with anyone who can access their friends' computers or Facebook accounts."
While Places can be an entertaining tool, no one should use it blindly, the analysts said. Consider the consequences of some location information getting out past your immediate circle of friends.
"If you play hooky from work, or go to the beach rather than your mom's birthday party, you might want to steer clear of using Places at least for those days," Olds said.
Some privacy advocates are concerned that Places was rolled out with users opted-in by default. That means it's running automatically, rather than allowing the user to decide to run it.
One of the criticisms of Places is that opting out isn't as simple as clicking on a "no thanks" kind of button.
To shut off Facebook Places, here's how to do it:
First, go to the pull-down "Account" tab on the top right of your Facebook homepage. From there, click on "Privacy Settings" and then look under "Sharing on Facebook." Click on "Everyone" and then click on "Customize Settings," which is slightly below in blue. Then click on "Places I Check Into," and check "Custom." Then under the pull-down tab, "These People", click on "Only Me" and hit "Save."
In that same area, you'll want to make sure that "People Here Now" is not enabled.
OK, you're part way there. Now, you'll need to go back and take a few more steps. Here's what you should do:
Go back to the "Account" pull-down on the top right of the page and click on "Privacy Settings." Next, scroll down to bottom of the page and under "Applications and Web Sites," click on "Edit Your Settings." Then, under "Info Accessible Through Your Friends," click on "Edit Settings." At that point, make sure "Places I check Into" is not checked.
"You can see that it's not straightforward and it's not simply an on-and-off button," said Shimmin. "[Facebook] could have done a better job of explaining what it means to opt in and letting people turn it off entirely."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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