First there was location-based social network Foursquare. Then Gowalla and other sites followed suit and launched. And now with news that Facebook is slowly rolling out its own location-based technology, you can expect to hear a lot—both true and false—about what these services really are.
Geolocation is still new to the social networking arena—Foursquare, for example, launched just last year. And as with any emerging technology (Twitter, anyone?) questions abound. How secure is it? What about my privacy? And, "Um, I don't get the point of this."
To separate fact from fiction, consider these five statements—and learn the real truth—about location-based services.
1. I'll get stalked.
As with any technology, there are security risks. However, location-based services pose a unique risk, as you're publishing your exact current location. That's why understanding and utilizing the privacy controls that the specific technology offers is of utmost importance.
A common misconception is that by using geolocation services such as Foursquare, your every movement will be tracked, recorded and publicized.
That's not necessarily true. Foursquare, for example, only shares your location when you proactively decide to check in to tell the service you're at a particular place. Even when you check in, you have the choice each time to share your particular location or to check in "off the grid."
Facebook, too, learned from its prior security mishaps. By default, Facebook's new Places check-ins are visible to friends only. This particular setting can be customized to allow broader sharing or to restrict it to a group of people. Similarly, if a friend tags you with a location, you have the option to remove the tag (as you may with Photos.) Or you can opt out entirely from being tagged in Places.
Bottom line: As with any online technology, it's up to you to understand and use the privacy policies to stay safe. Each location-based service is different, so it's important to know how each service works before you commit.
2. There's no reason for me to use a location-based service.
Broadcasting your location to your friends may seem inane, but then again so did broadcasting 140-character messages when Twitter first launched.
Location-based services offer more than just a way to say where you are. Discounts and free sample offers are popular. Clothing retailer Gap, for example, offered Foursquare users 25 percent off if they checked into the store's location. Ann Taylor offered a similar deal, too: 25 percent off for Foursquare mayors (users with the most check-ins to that venue in the last 60 days) and 15 percent off to each customer after their fifth check-in.
Gowalla, too, focuses on rewards. In their travels, Gowalla users may encounter "digital souvenirs," which are redeemable for real-world rewards such as apparel, movie tickets or gadgets.
And then there's the social aspect, on which Facebook seems to be focusing. "Ever gone to a show, only to find out afterward that your friends were there too?" wrote Facebook in its blog post announcing Facebook Places. Places, Facebook says, is designed to share your favorite spots with your friends and connect with them in the real world.
3. I don't have a smartphone, so I can't participate.
Few people realize that Foursquare offers two alternative ways to check in to a location: via your computer and SMS.
To check in from your computer, visit m.foursquare.com, scroll down the page and under your friends' feed, click on option two—"Check-in (tell us where you are!)" This will open to a new page where you can check in.
If your phone doesnt have a Web browser, you can use Foursquare's SMS shortcode to check in by sending a message to 50500. This is currently available in the U.S. only.
Facebook Places, however, is available right now only to those who have the Facebook for iPhone application or by visiting touch.facebook.com. This version of Places will only work if your device supports HTML 5 and geolocation.
4. Too many details of my everyday life will be shared with third parties.
Whenever you open the Foursquare app on your mobile phone, Foursquare uses the information from your phone to tailor the experience to your location—for example, it'll show you a list of nearby venues, friends and tips. This information is not published to your profile.
Foursquare does collect some personal information automatically. This includes your IP address, cookie information and the page you requested. Foursquare says that it only uses this information in aggregate form—not in a manner that would identify you personally. This information is shared with its partners, but not in a way that would identify you, the company says. Gowalla and Facebook Places operate in a similar manner.
5. I'll annoy Facebook Friends and Twitter followers with inane updates.
You've probably seen updates from your Facebook friends and Twitter followers announcing every half hour where they currently are. This is a Foursquare feature you have to intentionally turn on, otherwise your updates don't appear on Facebook or Twitter.
If you enable this feature, note that your location updates will no longer be private—they will appear in public Twitter time lines and will be visible to all your followers.
Similarly, if you choose to link your Foursquare account to Facebook, your updates will be published to your friends' news feeds and will be publicly available if your privacy settings allow people to view your wall. The same is true with linking your Gowalla account to Twitter and Facebook.
Kristin Burnham covers Consumer Technology, SaaS, Social Networking and Web 2.0 for CIO.com. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kmburnham. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Kristin at email@example.com.