Baffled by Facebook, Vol. XXIII: Facebook Places edition

So far this is the only "Place" in my neighborhood.

I have no problem so far with Facebook Places. I like the idea that you can see where your friends are (assuming they’ve opted in to do so). The ability I want that so far I haven’t seen in location-based apps is to say, for instance, “Where is Jeff Cohen right now?” That would have come in handy at SXSW this year, for instance, where I spent a lot of time muttering that actual question.

That sounds like a much more useful feature than seeing randomly where your friends are, especially if they’re having lunch in a restaurant on the opposite coast.

So far, in my limited use of Places, I can’t tell how easily that can be accomplished on a mobile device. It looks like I would have to go to my friend’s page and see if his or her most recent check-in is shown in the activity stream.

Facebook could make it easier to find. On my iPhone, when I look at a friend’s page, down at the bottom I see Wall, Info and Photos. Why not add Places? Then I could just click and see the last check in.

(Feel free to tell me if this ability already exists in Places or other location services. I make no claim to comprehensive and exclusive knowledge of anything beyond what the inside of my eyelids looks like.)

“But wait,” you say (assuming you’re concerned about privacy), “What if I don’t want people to know where I am?” My answer to that is, “Read one of the thousand articles written yesterday on how to turn off or customize this feature.”

I understand people’s privacy concerns, and I share them. Facebook has played fast and loose with privacy, making things open by default that should have been closed, because ultimately it is financially beneficial to them to have more and more people sharing more and more information.

But shouldn’t we be assuming that by now, not just about Facebook in particular, but about the Web in general? Essentially, many people are saying, “I’m using this free service and now I’m mad because I don’t like the things that I agreed to without trying to understand what they were.”

I’ve seen people online yesterday and today counting down to the inevitable Facebook Places backlash, and they’re right — it will be here any minute now. Regardless of everything I said above about the necessity of understanding what you’re getting yourself into (and I’m sure by saying all of that I’ve doomed myself to doing something public and boneheaded in social media this week), Facebook really does shoot itself in the foot, over and over. For the life of me I cannot fathom why they would give users the ability to check their friends in to places, and turn that on by default. That one should lead to some interesting lawsuits. I’m also wondering how soon before it shows up as part of the plot on “Law and Order.”

Yelp proved its value yesterday. Mostly.

I like Yelp, the site that crowdsources people’s opinions and gives ratings on restaurants, stores and service businesses. I also have the Yelp application on my iPhone. I don’t use either one of them much at home, because I pretty much know which restaurants I like and where they are.

But I’m in Seattle this week for SAS Global Forum, our annual user conference. Yesterday morning I decided to use Yelp to find a place for breakfast. (Eating at the hotel restaurant always feels a bit like giving up.) So I opened the Yelp app, selected Restaurants as my category (they have lots more categories too, like Banks, Gas & Service Stations, Drugstores, etc.) and filtered by price and walking distance. It also lets you filter by which places are open at the time you’re looking, which is obviously pretty useful.

I found a half dozen or so candidates, and picked a Spanish restaurant with great reviews called Andaluca, because I thought it would be fun to find out what a Spanish breakfast was like. I clicked on the Directions button, which opened Google Maps and showed me how to get there. Really cool.

Like so many of the coolest iPhone apps (TripIt, Layar and Foursquare), Yelp really shows its value when you don’t know where you are or what’s good.

The restaurant turned out to be small and elegant, with a nice wait staff. And a breakfast menu exactly like the one in my hotel. What Yelp hadn’t told me was that it actually is a hotel restaurant itself, so it’s Spanish at night and generic ‘Mercan in the morning. I had a chicken sausage hash with poached eggs. Tasty, but I doubt that’s what they were eating in Madrid that morning.

I won’t blame that on Yelp, though. But I did go in and leave a quick tip on Andaluca’s Yelp page that said, “Nothing Spanish about the breakfast menu.”

Fear of geek robbers

Mashable makes an extremely valid point in the debate about the safety of location-based apps. As you’ve probably heard, there’s a new tool that aggregates public check-ins from location-based apps that users have posted to public places like Twitter and lets you search them by zip code. (I’m not going to link to it or even call it by name. I think it’s completely irresponsible to create something that exposes other people’s vulnerabilities, whether or not you’re claiming to do it for their own good.) My friend Wayne Sutton has a good rundown of the whole issue.

I used to worry a lot more about security and anonymity on the Web. I’ve relaxed a bit, although I still try to use common sense. I’ve stopped accepting Foursquare requests, for instance, from people I don’t know. (For one thing, if I don’t know who you are, why would I care where you are?)

But here’s what it comes down to for me: I was burgled twice in my old house, almost certainly by the same people (they entered the same way, were very tidy, and only took consumer electronics that could be easily sold – I assume they waited until I had replaced everything before coming back a second time). Those people robbed my house because it backed up to the woods, because I didn’t have a back porch light and because there was no one there to see them. Also, I’m sure it was clear I wasn’t home.

In other words, I’m not worried about a crackhead with an iPhone casing me on Foursquare, when the vast majority of the robberies in my town are someone kicking in a door or breaking a window, grabbing a laptop or a DVD player and running. If the typical burglar around here had a device that he could use to check Foursquare or Gowalla, he would have sold it by now.