On Thursday, Facebook launched a new feature called "Nearby Friends." It's kind of self-explanatory, but before you get any specific details about it, Facebook just wants you to know that it's optional. Totally optional. Not at all a scary privacy invasion. Your body (existing in space-time), your choice.
It's a feature that shows you where your Facebook friends are (if they have the feature turned on) and tracks your phone to show them where you are. It also "occasionally" uses notifications to alert you when friends are close by. Nearby Friends pulls from your Facebook friends, so it doesn't require you to build a new contact list like similar services do. But that's also a downside: Most people's Facebook friends are largely composed of acquaintances, not actual friends.
The feature is similar to products like Foursquare, Banjo, and Apple's "Find Friends," which all came out in the last five years and seem to have sort of peaked in popularity. Be that as it may, Facebook is forging ahead. The people who created Nearby friends are the team from the location service Glancee, which Facebook acquired about two years ago.
Location services have struggled to stay relevant, and Nearby Friends seems like it will have similar problems. Facebook says in a press release:
If you turn on Nearby Friends, you’ll occasionally be notified when friends are nearby, so you can get in touch with them and meet up. For example, when you’re headed to the movies, Nearby Friends will let you know if friends are nearby so you can see the movie together or meet up afterward.
Sure. You see how that's supposed to work. But how often do you go to the movies alone hoping you'll run into people you know? Or how often do you go to the movies with one or more selected friends, but secretly hope you'll be able to meet up with other as-yet undetermined people after so you don't have to actually spend time with your movie buddies?
This type of coincidental meetup can be fun, and as a friend of mine (a real friend whom I intentionally hang out with, often as the result of advanced plans) realized a few weeks ago. He texted me the following: "I ended up randomly chilling with Mark yesterday. It was fun. We both went to the Nets game and he saw me check in on Foursquare. So we went to a bar. Btw, Foursquare was actually useful for a thing!"
Location services tend to end up having these very niche uses, like checking whether any of your friends are at the same large sports game or concert as you. I find adding people on Find Friends in iOS to be kind of creepy in general, but my roommate and I do use it from time to time. Mainly we're checking to make sure the other one is safe, or to get a sense of when we'll each be home based on where we are. It's faster and less annoying than constantly sending "Are you still at work?" or "Are you at home right now?" messages.
Though the general lack of enthusiasm for other location-based social networks makes now seem like a kind of odd time to introduce Nearby Friends, it's not that surprising in terms of Facebook functionality. You can already turn on location-awareness on Facebook so the service can post where you are in things like statuses, and keep track of where you've been for the "Places: Visited" map (you can also add to that map manually). And Nearby Friends has the potential to give Facebook more data about you for better targeted advertising.
But if you turn the feature on (and Facebook would want you to keep in mind that it's totally optional) just remember that it's going to be another location-tracking feature that's sucking your battery life. You'll have to weigh conserving that juice against the potential that you may be playing frisbee in the same park as your childhood best friend's cousin who's jogging.
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