Facebook’s “Nearby Friends” Feature Aims for More Offline Connections
Despite what my Twitter feed may suggest, I’m a pretty private person. I enjoy moving through the world quietly, getting in touch with friends and family when I have time to do so. What I don’t do that often is broadcast where I am.
Facebook thinks I’m missing out on a lot of opportunities. That’s why it’s introducing “Nearby Friends,” a feature that lets you show off where you are in the world to your Facebook friends without having to check in to locations.
Simply put, it’s a way to help you meet your friends when you may be close to them while going about your day. Flip open the Nearby Friends tab inside Facebook’s main app and, using your phone’s GPS capabilities, the feature will run in the background and ambiently broadcast where you are to other Facebook friends who have turned on the feature. From there, Facebook imagines you’ll call or message your friends to potentially hook up with one another if you’re in the same area.
The new product comes about two years after a wave of location-aware broadcasting apps hit the market, as we saw small startups like Highlight, Banjo and Sonar all offer similar products that encouraged offline interactions based on nearby people who used the app. (Nearby Friends was built by Andrea Vaccari and team, a group of guys who founded a similar location startup called Glancee, which Facebook bought a few years ago.) But most of those startups have foundered, failing to see any widespread use.
Vaccari thinks that’s because many of those apps didn’t see many users early on, and most of those apps were based on the idea of meeting new people. With his Facebook-built product, Vaccari thinks that it’ll work since it’s about connecting with people you already know.
“Meeting a friend is a more important experience, and more people gravitate toward meeting friends rather than new people,” Vaccari said in a recent interview. “There’s probably some group of people who want to meet new people, but most are comfortable sticking with friends. Or, people say they want to meet new people, but don’t actually do it.”
As Facebook well knows, a feature like this will automatically raise privacy concerns. Which is why Vaccari is quick to remind that the feature is opt-in only, and comes with a multi-step tutorial on the exact amount of information users are sharing if they decide to turn it on. And if you turn it on, Nearby Friends also won’t share your exact location, but rather let people know roughly how far away you are from them; if you want, you can choose to show your approximate location for a fixed amount of time, and with only certain friends.
It’s a clever compromise, divulging just enough information about where you are without advertising your exact position. It’s also fairly buried under a sub-menu inside of the Facebook app, and needs to be turned on to work. My guess is Facebook will dodge privacy hawks this time around.
I’m more curious to see if the masses want something like this, or if they’re more like me — the type of guy who wants to see my friends mostly when I’m expecting it, and doesn’t always have time for serendipitous meetings, however unexpected and lovely they may be.
But perhaps I’m old-fashioned like that.