If You Thought Facebook Was Killing Privacy Before, Wait Until You See What It's Doing With Mobile Phones

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 26 2012 10:36 AM

Facebook Tests Feature That Tells You About the Stranger Sitting Next To You

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Facebook's "Find Friends Now" feature would let you see who else in your area is on the site.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said that his goal is to make the world more transparent. And in many ways, Facebook has done that. It lets you keep tabs on your friends, acquaintances, crushes, kids, etc., by telling you what they’re reading, what games they’re playing, and even, at times what they’re thinking, no matter where in the world they are.

But for all the barriers it breaks down between you and your far-flung friends, Facebook has never told you anything about the stranger who’s sitting right next to you. That may be about to change.

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On Monday, the social network quietly rolled out a feature called “Find Friends Nearby,” which allowed mobile users to see who else in their physical vicinity was online and using the same feature. So if you were on the “Find Friends Nearby” page (http://fb.com/ffn) looking to meet new people, you would see a list of other Facebook users in the area who were doing the same thing.

Apparently, the feature wasn’t ready for prime time: Hours after Facebook rolled it out, it rolled it right back in.

That doesn’t mean the company is having second thoughts, though. As Wired notes, this was probably a test, designed to let the company try out the feature, work out some kinks, and gauge the reaction before launching it with fanfare and publicity. And as TechCrunch points out, the trial balloon comes two months after the company acquired Glancee, a social-location startup. I would be shocked if this turned out to be the last we heard of it.

For the past year or two, the big knock on Facebook has been that it doesn’t “get” mobile. If true, that would be a serious problem, because more and more online activity is moving from desktops and laptops to smartphones. But Facebook’s recent acquisitions of Instagram, Face.com, and now Glancee make it clear that the company knows its future is largely mobile—and not only that, it knows that mobile opens up fresh possibilities. If you thought Facebook made the world transparent before, just wait until it figures out how to deploy all of its fancy new mobile tools.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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