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
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.”

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