NEW YORK -- Facebook users carrying their smart phones will soon be able to check in to real-life locations such as restaurants, bars or live concerts.
It's the first foray by the world's largest online social network into the frenzy of location-based services. Rising with the popularity of smart phones, such services let users find coupons, earn quirky merit badges or simply share with friends where they are.
The new feature is called Facebook Places. Sharing your whereabouts with friends is its main focus and some have noted that the feature "borrows heavily" from existing services like Foursquare and Gowalla, who are partnering with Facebook on Places.
Check-ins will be available on Facebook's iPhone application Wednesday with a free update users can download, as well as on the site's touch site used by many other mobile phones.
Facebook explained the feature in an introductory blog post: "You have the option to share your location by "checking in" to that place and letting friends know where you are. You can easily see if any of your friends have also chosen to check in nearby."
Places will let users tag other friends in their check-ins, as is currently possible with photos or status updates, and will enable users see others who have also checked in to their location.
Having wrestled with privacy concerns in the past, Facebook has attempted to strike the right balance with Places and has given users a variety of tools to control what location information they share and with whom. As the New York Times reports, "Mr. Sharon said that Places would have a series of privacy controls intended to give users the power to decide with whom they would share check-ins. Users will, for instance, be able to remove themselves after they are tagged. There will also be special privacy controls to protect minors, he added."
Facebook is partnering with Foursquare and Gowalla, two already-popular location-based social networks that also allow users to "check in." TechCrunch writes, "Representatives from both Gowalla and Foursquare were invited to take the stage at the event to talk about how they plan to leverage Facebook's new Places API. Both will allow you to check-in and publish the data to your Facebook feed. Your badges and pins from each of those apps will transfer over as well." Unlike Foursquare, Facebook has opted not to make Places into a game. There are no mayorships or merit badges - only socializing.
See screenshots of the Places iPhone app and Walt Mossberg's introduction to Facebook Places below.