Facebook is in the middle of an ongoing battle to make sure it always surfaces useful, relevant content in your News Feed — which is what makes a new feature the company is piloting a bit of a risk. As of today, Facebook users in New York City will be able to test out a new feature called Place Tips. Assuming you have location services enabled, the Facebook app will try to guess when you’re in a popular or interesting location and surface relevant tips, photos, and posts from the place in question.
"News Feed today is a pretty good tool at connecting you to friends and news," says product manager Mike LeBeau, "but if we’re Facebook and our job is to connect the world, what else do we want to connect you to?" The answer to that question is "the world around you," and given the proliferation of Facebook use on mobile devices, it’s a logical move to make — and one that’ll help the company surface the massive amount of photos, tips, and other data it has tied to specific locations and businesses.
A new way to surface Facebook's location-based posts
Based on the screenshots and the quick demo Facebook gave me, a Place Tip is a fairly unobtrusive slice that shows up in the top of your News Feed. It’ll pop up when it looks like you’re near, for example, New York’s famous Strand Bookstore, and you’ll see a feed of info should you choose to tap on it. Once you open it, you’ll be able to check in to the location and see photos and posts shared by your friends who’ve also visited the same spot. Naturally, it’ll also surface information from the location’s official Facebook page.
LeBeau was quick to stress to me that nothing about Facebook’s privacy settings had changed in regard to location, and users would only share their location if they chose to (and then only with the people they’ve allowed to see such info). It simply surfaces publicly shared content related to that spot, as well as anything your friends may have shared with you from that location.
Of course, in a city as densely packed as New York, nailing down your exact location is a bit of a technical challenge, something Facebook says was part of the reason it is launching Place Tips there. "There are a lot of difficult technical problems to solve here," says LeBeau. "Knowing for sure which business to surface… we’re using GPS and Wi-Fi to try and figure out where you are."
"There are a lot of difficult technical problems to solve here."
Facebook is going beyond the hardware built into your phone to find out where you are, though — the company is also deploying Facebook BlueTooth Beacons in "a few small businesses that we’re excited about." For starters, beacons will be deployed at the Dominique Ansel Bakery, Strand Book Store, The Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien Hotel, Brooklyn Bowl, Pianos, the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop, and Veselka. These beacons will be used to concretely identify when someone using Facebook is in a store that has them deployed — although given the close proximity of businesses in New York, the possibility for misidentification still exists.
That’s why this is all starting off as a pilot. "We want to be really confident if we’re going to show you something at the top of your News Feed," says LeBeau. "As we started building this, we realized we need more confidence to show you the right and relevant things." As someone who uses Foursquare’s Swarm app in crowded San Francisco with few location identification problems, it seems that Facebook can likely get this right, as well. When that happens, it’ll start to roll out to more cities and more users, as well as the Android app (for now, the pilot is only for iOS users). For now, though, you’ll need to be in New York City to give Place Tips a shot.