Facebook and the Latent Local Layer

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How many of your Facebook friends live near you? You might think it would be easy to find out. Facebook lets you filter your friends or search for new friends by city, but most of us would consider our local region to include more than just one city or town. Surprisingly, there is no easy way to see all friends who live nearby. You basically have to count them up manually.

Out of curiosity, I’ve just done that, and I would guess my findings are pretty typical. About 29% of my Facebook friends are people I consider to live near me, defining “near” to be roughly a 30-mile radius from my house. (By contrast, only 2.6% of my friends are listed as living in exactly the same town as me.)

It’s not exactly a remarkable statement that a significant number of my Facebook friends live nearby. What is remarkable is that Facebook doesn’t seem to care much about this. As with anything Facebook-related, there’s an unprecedented amount of user information latent in the system that relates to people in your general vicinity, whether or not you are personally connected to them. Of course, once you leave personal connection behind, you risk becoming something other than Facebook. But the fact remains that Facebook carries within itself a lot of data about what people are doing right around you, right now. If you spend your days thinking about local, the possibilities should set your head spinning.

You may remember that back in the dawn of time (that is to say, 2005-2006), when Facebook made its big transition from a college-only site to an open network, geographic region was one of the main organizing principles. When I first joined Facebook in 2007, I was required to choose a regional network in order to sign up, and friends were suggested to me based on my region. It was a logical leap from college affiliation to associate users with the places where they lived. But regional networks were phased out back in 2009. Facebook’s rationale at the time is interesting to note:

Just a few weeks ago, we started the process of phasing out regional networks, since they did not adequately reflect a world where people choose exactly the audience with whom they wish to share. Regional networks made sense for those who wanted to be more open when Facebook was small, but they lost their utility as the site became global.

The idea that regions have no utility is curious. What the post seems to mean is that Facebook’s viral growth was making region irrelevant; at a certain point Facebook no longer needed regional networks to help build its user base. The potential usefulness of regional networks for those same users is not at issue.

The result of this very single-minded focus on the global as opposed to the local is that liking a local business page is no more or less significant than liking a celebrity page, a cause, a news outlet, or indeed an entire town. The use case that gets disregarded turns out to be that of an incredibly powerful recommendation engine for local businesses.

You might say that this is what Yelp has always been about, but remember that Yelp’s preferred method of recommendation is the in-depth review. Though Yelp reviews are a valuable commodity, comparatively few people actually write them, and those who do write fewer reviews than they would if the process were less time-consuming. So for the most part we are consumers rather than producers of Yelp recommendations. Yelp is more like a curated list — more like Yahoo in its original form than like Google or Facebook — and its growth is limited by its structure. You still can’t post a Yelp review from your phone, for instance, because Yelp wants you to spend time carefully crafting your opinions. It makes sense given Yelp’s model but also helps explain why Yelp never reached Facebook’s level of ubiquity.

Google+ on the other hand is probably angling to grow into exactly the kind of local recommendation engine that Facebook has so far not deigned to become. The problem with Google+, of course, is usage, or lack thereof. The longer that problem continues, the less likely it will ever be solved. Still, perhaps it will be true that the Google+ Local transition drives a massive upsurge in user activity on the social network. At this point it’s too early to tell as we’re still mired in the details of that transition.

While Yelp has a model that limits growth and Google faces an uphill battle, Facebook, an engineer’s dream of frictionless human communication, makes it easy as pie to contribute your thoughts and activities to the network. It doesn’t hurt that the more people contribute, the more compelling the network becomes. Look at what happened when Facebook launched business pages. In a few short months, half of all U.S. businesses had them. Why? Because creating a business page is simple, and everyone’s already on Facebook.

Much of Facebook’s success as an advertising medium is based on the wealth of targeting information voluntarily shared by users, and your location is definitely one of those targets. So the social network is making use of your location today, just not in a way that is particularly useful to anyone but advertisers and to Facebook itself.

If Facebook were to really turn its attention to local, and if it were able to avoid the inevitable privacy landmines, it could do some amazing things. Imagine if all of our posts and check-ins related to local restaurants were correlated together in a meaningful way. There’s little doubt Facebook could recommend the new place down the street based on your preferences and those of others similar to you, with a high likelihood of successfully predicting what you will like. Not to mention that playing to its strengths and making local sharing easy and fun would result in even more useful information. To misquote Seth Priebatsch, soon enough you’d see Facebook turn into the local layer on top of the world.

Damian Rollison has served as VP of Product for Universal Business Listing since 2010. He holds degrees in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Virginia, where he did graduate work at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. Damian’s articles on emerging technology have appeared in VentureBeat.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi. SOCi is the leading CoMarketing Cloud for multi-location enterprises. They empower nearly 1,000 brands to automate and scale their marketing efforts across all locations and digital channels.