Instantly-public travel plans
Last week, the social networking site Facebook revolutionised the idea of social sharing by rolling out more than 80 apps – many of which are travel related -- that automatically broadcast your activities online.
When you first install a "Timeline app", such as TripAdvisor or Where I've Been, it will ask for your permission to post your activities to a list of friends you select from a drop-down menu. After that, the app will never ask for permission again. Every tiny aspect of your online life -- every hotel booked, every cafe visited and so forth – will be posted on your profile, on the newsfeeds of your approved friends and on the "ticker" (an abbreviated form of the newsfeed that appears in an inset on the newsfeed).
For travellers, this means you can effortlessly share your trip aspirations and travel experiences with friends, but these apps also raise tricky questions. Information about your travel plans and past trips may get you into trouble if the details are unwittingly shared with audiences you didn't anticipate. Announcing the dates of an upcoming weekend getaway, for instance, might find its way into the newsfeed of your crazy uncle who lives nearby and insists you visit him during your stay.
While some users dismiss the privacy concerns and accept the occasional interpersonal snafus as a worthwhile trade off to the plentiful perks of living transparently, others take a more cautious approach and limit the information-sharing apps to a carefully vetted list of friends. You might, for instance, create a custom "Travel" list of friends you specifically trust enough to update on your vacations.
A word of caution, though: these much-vaunted lists aren't airtight walls. If your pre-approved friend “likes” something an app posted to your wall – perhaps a hotel you booked via the TripAdvisor Cities I've Visited app — that action will appear in the tickers of all their friends too. Any one of their connections, many of them strangers to you, could mouse over the news that they "liked" your itinerary and see your hotel booking details, even if they're completely unknown to you. In other words, Facebook is a leaky boat and scraps of information are always at risk of appearing before unintended audiences.
If you do not want the app to share information with anyone, you should choose the "Only me" option from the drop-down menu upon installation. If you signed up for any of these apps prior to the changes made this week, your default privacy options will have been set to share. Go to Edit Applications in Facebook to adjust the levels you want.
Below is a breakdown of a few of the new Facebook apps, focusing on those that are most relevant to travellers.
The online booking site for holiday rentals connects people who have space to spare with those who are looking to vacation like a local. Traditionally, people visited Airbnb.com directly to arrange bookings, but now more than 140,000 people have installed the Facebook app, which lets users list, search or book rentals without ever leaving the social networking site.
A booking made through the app will automatically publish to your newsfeed, including brief information about the place you've booked. If friends also sign up for the Airbinb app, they will be able to see everything on your Airbnb profile, including upcoming itinerary information that you've made public to other members. If you click a link called "Social Connections", Airbnb will share your information with other Airbnb users who also use Facebook, letting you see if you have friend-of-friend connections with any hosts at your destination and helping you spot lodgings that your friends might have visited and liked.
For most of its 2.9 million users, the point of this location-based service is to broadcast your whereabouts on Facebook. Confusingly, after you’ve installed the app, you're asked to set privacy settings twice. After choosing from options that range between everyone on the Internet ("Public") to no one else ("Only you"), you have to go through the process all over again, and deselect options from check boxes, such as "by default, share my check-ins to Facebook".
Gogobot has the most complicated privacy steps of all the apps mentioned here. And when you sign up for it, as more than 300,000 people have done, it will automatically announce to all of your friends that you have installed it. By default, your main "Friends" list will be able to see the places that you've been (provided you told that to Gogobot) and that you're planning to visit. It also has quizzes whose answers are posted to your friends' newsfeeds.
Frustratingly, to set your privacy settings you have to go to Edit Applications on Facebook's App settings page, select the appropriate option from the Gogobot drop down menu (such as "Friends except acquaintances") and click a link to "remove" permission for Gogobot to post as if it were you.
The user review giant has a special TripAdvisor Cities I've Visited App that automatically posts on your Timeline where you've been, where you want to go and where you love going, according to surveys you fill out on TripAdvisor about cities you have visited, liked and consider favourites. Right now, TripAdvisor doesn't reveal to other Facebook friends any hotel reviews you might write or any hotel listings you might browse. However, TripAdvisor might someday adopt the model of the Washington Post's Social Reader app which shares with everyone you've authorised any article you read on the newspaper's website, meaning that someday it might start sharing with other people any hotels you merely look at or review. In the meantime, privacy settings are similar to all of the above apps.
Where I've Been
Where I've Been reveals all of the places you've visited on an interactive map, sends postcards to specific friends and enables you to highlight your favourite travel spots and travel partners. The privacy options are straightforward: when you click to add the app on Facebook, you're asked "Who can see activity from this app on Facebook" and given a drop-down menu, which ranges from "Public" to "Only Me". More than 60,000 people use this app each month.
Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel