Facebook Deals: Who gets what?
Here's Facebook's view of your social networking future. You walk down the street brandishing your smartphone, and "checking in" via the Facebook Places app to shops, cafes and other businesses. In return you get 50% off a cup of coffee, extra dishes at the sushi bar, or even the loan of a sports car for a few months.
"This is really, really exciting," said the eager young American woman unveiling Facebook Deals, as the product is called, at this morning's launch. Excitement is par for the course at these kind of events - along with applause from "supporters" in the audience. I struggled to share her enthusiasm - this is basically just another loyalty scheme for retailers, right?
Emily White, head of Local for Facebook went on to explain that "it allows businesses to start joining the conversation". I sat wondering whether having my local supermarket intruding into my social life was quite such a hot idea. But Emily went on: "Your life is not just about the people in it - it's also the experiences you're having and the businesses and places around you."
Many big brands apparently now have more Facebook friends on their fan pages than they have visitors to their websites - and the social network says it wants to help them get even friendlier with their customers. It has signed up the likes of Argos, Starbucks, O2 and Debenhams, which will now be offering rewards to Facebook users who check in with their phones.
So who gets what from this new service? It's obvious what is in it for the big brands - it gives them an easy way to tap into Facebook's social graph, learn more about their customers and perhaps get more traffic to their businesses.
For users, if they are prepared to share their location with these businesses - a big if - there is the prospect of a few deals. That might attract the dedicated bargain-hunters but I still find it hard to believe that most Facebook members want to be bothered with this kind of activity. Unless of course they find that all their friends are doing it, at which point it becomes a social activity, like posting photos or playing games.
The Facebook executives were asked at the press conference just how many people were using the service in the United States where it launched late last year. "Millions," was the closest we got to an answer, which left us none the wiser.
And finally, what is in it for Facebook itself? Nothing, apparently, in terms of revenue - it's a service offered free to businesses and users. The company isn't ruling out taking a cut somewhere along the line but insists that for now it's just about making Facebook more fun: "You see this with everything we do," explained Emily White, "we start by optimising the user experience."
The bigger picture is that this is an idea which has already been tried out by other companies, most notably FourSquare which turns your life into a mobile game, with rewards for turning up regularly at places like your local coffee bar. Facebook's sheer scale could mean that brands now ignore the New York-based start-up, endangering its mission to prove it is on the path to profitability. In other words, Places Deals could be just another small step in Facebook's mission to crush all opposition as it becomes the one network that rules the world.
Right through its history, Mark Zuckerberg's company has introduced innovations which have been attacked as having little appeal to users, and no obvious commercial benefits. And, as documented in episode two of The Secret History of Social Networking on Radio 4 this coming Wednesday, he has almost always proved the critics wrong - more users arrive, and opportunities to earn money from them come along eventually.
So perhaps checking in on Facebook and collecting free goodies all along your local high street will soon become as common as posting photos or playing Farmville. I just don't see that happening. Then again, I'm the one who told Mark Zuckerberg in 2008 that he was bonkers not to sell up while the going was good.