Can Facebook Help You Find Your Friends Without Being Creepy?

The social network entered the discovery-app world Thursday with its new Nearby Friends feature — but can it quell privacy concerns?

National Journal
Dustin Volz
Add to Briefcase
Dustin Volz
April 17, 2014, 9 a.m.

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.”

What We're Following See More »
THE PRESIDENT’S POCKET
16th Charity Cancels Function at Mar-a-Lago
13 hours ago
THE LATEST
OVER N. KOREA NUCLEAR PROGRAMS
U.S. Imposes Sanctions on 16 Companies
15 hours ago
THE LATEST
U.N. REPORT REVEALS DETAILS
North Korean Chemical Weapons Shipments to Syria Intercepted
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Two North Korean shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for the country's chemical weapons program were intercepted in the past six months, according to a confidential United Nations report on North Korea sanctions violations."

Source:
PARTICIPATES IN TOWN HALL TONIGHT
Ryan: “There Are No Sides” on Charlottesville
1 days ago
THE LATEST

After taking fire for not forcefully condemning President Trump's statements on Charlottesville, Speaker Paul Ryan today issued a statement that takes issue with any "moral relativism" when it comes to Neo-Nazis. "There are no sides," he wrote. "There is no other argument. We will not tolerate this hateful ideology in our society." Ryan participates in a CNN town hall tonight from Racine, Wis.

Source:
TRUST FOR NATIONAL MALL SET TO REFURBISH SITE
New Jefferson Memorial Exhibit Will Acknowledge His Owning of Slaves
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

"An exhibit alongside the nation's chief memorial to Thomas Jefferson will receive an update that reflects 'the complexity' of his status as a founder of the United States and a slaveholder, according to stewards of the National Mall." The Trust for the National Mall, which works with the National Park Service to maintain the Mall, "has been planning to raise money to refurbish the National Park Service exhibit accompanying the memorial, which has deteriorated since its installment about 20 years ago." An official with the Trust told the Washington Examiner: "We can reflect the momentous contributions of someone like Thomas Jefferson, but also consider carefully the complexity of who he was. And that's not reflected right now in the exhibits."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login