With the recent launch of Facebook Places, many social media users and experts are debating the utility of location-based applications compared with the privacy concerns associated with services like Places, Gowalla, Foursquare, and Yelp.

While Foursquare, Gowalla and Yelp location applications have gained popularity over the past year, Facebook Places is bringing location services to the mass public, not just social media savvy users. With over 500 million users, Facebook is undoubtedly the most popular social media platform available. Although Places is currently only available in the United States and has not yet become accessible to all users, some users argue that Facebook’s popularity means Places may pose a major threat to other location applications. Other social media users disagree, arguing that Facebook and Foursquare serve somewhat different functions. While people using Foursquare are clearly comfortable sharing their location with others, many Facebook users feel that Places is an invasion of privacy and have serious reservations about using the service.

After its debut, major complaints arose about privacy concerns associated with Facebook Places. Difficulty choosing to opt out of the application entirely; no choice concerning who, among friends, can see a location check-in; and the controversial “here now” setting have caused an uproar in the social media world. As it turns out, users can opt out of Places if they are concerned about privacy (although this requires navigating Facebook’s sometimes confusing privacy settings) and the more contentious settings like “here now,” shouldn’t be an issue for users who keep their privacy settings even moderately secure.

Another major criticism of Places is that the application is too broad. People don’t necessarily want all of their Facebook friends to see their location and many users have complained that they don’t want to clutter friends’ newsfeeds with frequent updates. Social media experts have recommended a few remedies, including adding a “publish to newsfeed” option for Places or making a model like Foursquare’s “celebrity mode”, which allows users to distinguish between “friends” and “followers,” (a Facebook vs. Twitter type of distinction, where users have to explicitly approve “friends” but are simply notified of “followers” without the option to accept or reject them). Users could then choose who sees updates – friends, followers, or everyone – and protect their privacy while still being able to share some information with everyone.

Despite these concerns, services like Facebook Places, Foursquare, and Gowalla can offer major benefits. Location applications were described by MG Siegler of TechCrunch as “the bridge between social networking and actual social interaction.” Social networking websites that initially isolated users from being in the presence of other people are now employing location applications that are promoting exactly the opposite – driving people together by alerting users when a “friend” or “follower” is nearby, thus encouraging users to make contact with friends.

These applications can also be a useful tool for small businesses. Location applications drive users and friends to congregate in popular locations, and if a company uses these applications correctly, they can leverage this new social media tool to drive traffic – real and virtual – to their businesses. Facebook Places offers an advantage to businesses by allowing companies to merge their Facebook page with Places, directing visitors who are checking in at their location to their Facebook fan page. Businesses can also use provide rewards for checking in on Places, offering discounts or freebies, which will encourage users to not only visit a business’ location, but publicize it.

This is a post written by our marketing intern Charlotte Dretler