Facebook is ready to help you find your friends—and only your friends—in the real world.
The social-media juggernaut launched a new geolocation feature Thursday that uses your phone's GPS to discover when your Facebook friends are close by and sends you a notification if they are interested in meeting up.
The optional service, simply named Nearby Friends, is meant to bolster the sort of accidental encounters between two friends who might otherwise not know they're at the same concert, movie premiere, or art museum.
It is definitely, emphatically not a way to find new people or dating prospects, promises the product's lead engineer, Andrea Vaccari.
"Looking at the data showed us that, while, yeah, it's cool to meet new people … when there is that serendipitous meeting with a friend nearby, that is so much more powerful," Vaccari told National Journal during a private demo at the company's Washington office. "That really makes everything else sort of secondary."
The idea is simple enough: The next time you go to a big concert or a baseball game or shop downtown, Facebook will notify you of friends in the general area and approximately how far they are from you (e.g., one mile, one-half mile, etc.). If you want to meet one of them, you can ping them to share your "precise location" on a map for a chosen duration of time. The friend can agree to share her precise coordinates as well. Navigate accordingly until rendezvous is complete.
Like many of Facebook's new toys, Nearby Friends will have a limited, staggered rollout. Some U.S. users will start to see the service pop up Thursday when they log on via a mobile device, though it is currently available only on iPhone and Android. Though CEO Mark Zuckerberg has articulated a desire to "unbundle" its services into separate phone apps, Nearby Friends is built into the main Facebook app and a bit buried underneath the "more" menu. It will also appear sporadically in news feeds.
Bucking Facebook's somewhat spotty record of "use data, ask permission later," Nearby Friends is an entirely opt-in product—for now, at least—that is rooted in a principle of reciprocity. Only users who turn on Nearby Friends can see friends who are also using the feature.
"We spent a long time thinking about the right combination of value and controls," Vaccari said. "Location is a powerful social signal, but we have chosen to make this experience self-contained so people can learn how it works and get comfortable with it."
Despite such overtures, Facebook has drawn ire for years from those who believe the company is too cavalier with how it shares user data, particularly with advertisers. Its recent $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp has earned scrutiny from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, as well as a stern warning from the Federal Trade Commission to honor the mobile-messaging platform's commitments to user privacy.
Given its track record, Nearby Friends is sure to be seen as creepy by some no matter what. And no one knows that better than Facebook.
The company tried to launch a similar product two years ago, then dubbed "Find Friends Nearby" (after a fleeting moniker of "Friendshake"), but the quiet project was unceremoniously killed just days after it hit the market. That iteration's raison d'être was fundamentally different than the current product. Instead of helping you find where your preexisting friends are, the old product wanted to make it easy to hop on Facebook and find the profiles of people nearby who were not already your friend, to make it easy to connect long-term with the woman you bumped into at the library or the nicely dressed guy at a conference.
The lead engineer for that project, Ryan Patterson, wrote at the time that "the ideal-use case for this product is the one where when you're out with a group of people whom you've recently met and want to stay in contact with."
Vaccari once agreed. He invented a similar location app, Glancee, before being bought out by Facebook two months before it tried to launch Find Friends Nearby.
But Vaccari's new product drops the concept that we need to "find" anyone new. Instead, Nearby Friends is only for your friend groups, and, like most of the company's features, it can be limited to a select list of special friends. So if you want your significant other to know where you are but not your grandma, you're covered.
Several location-based discovery apps are already on the market, and some even cultivate user data from Facebook to help "match" people with others close by who may share common interests. Services like Tinder and Grindr are commonly used for dating.
But Vaccari and Facebook believe the desire of "finding" someone is guided by two principles: wanting to spend more time with friends and protecting privacy and data.
"There were a lot of products out there that took the first idea into account, but not the second one," Vaccari said. "For the first value prop, to meet your friends, to happen, everyone has to feel comfortable."