CNN reports that the popular social network Facebook has launched a feature that enables users to track their friends while using the site. The new feature, which was officially rolled out this past Thursday, uses location information from satellites to tell Facebook users which of their friends are also available in the area they are currently at. The team behind the new technology have dubbed it the “Nearby Friends” feature. While it will make real-time socialisation away from the laptop much easier, there are also privacy fears, especially with the likelihood of stalkers or burglars using Facebook to track targets’ locations in order to carry out crimes and other nefarious activities.
The idea behind “Nearby Friends” is make it easier for people to meet up in real life and make their conversations face-to-face rather than via the site’s inbuilt chat service or wall comments. As CNN reporter Heather Kelly sums it up, the feature means that users can now be “temporarily replacing Likes and LOLs with eye contact and actual laughter“.
Facebook also hopes Nearby Friends will promote more usage of its site’s features and that of its family member Instagram, the photo-sharing site that Zuckerberg bought for $1 billion in April 2012. People meeting up with the feature’s help might be more inclined to take selfies and pictures of the places they visit and upload them to Facebook photo albums and Instagram streams.
Nearby Friends will be made available to all users, but in a massive change from previous changes and innovations by the social media site, will not be automatically turned on for every user. Facebook’s earlier tinkering beneath the site’s bonnet has enraged users who felt they had been muscled in without giving formal consent, in addition to the site’s privacy woes – users often complain that Facebook makes its privacy setting deliberately difficult to find. Facebookers can opt out if they wish. Friends will not be able to see where you are unless you choose to enable live-tracking on your phone and make the correct choice in the site’s settings, which will go some way to reassuring those who are concerned about privacy, which Facebook has not always been on the ball with previous technologies.
People who do use Nearby Friends can set their location in a number of ways. They can opt to only show their general location, for example, just ‘London, United Kingdom’ with all of their friends, certain groups of friends (i.e. workplace, former school or college), or with a customised list that the user creates. Only friends who themselves have activated the feature will be able to see where you are. Turning the feature on shows a list of friends with the feature and their approximate locations. A push notification tells you how many friends are local. Opening the app will also let you know how far away they are from your current location and a timestamp displaying exactly when they were there last. You can also share your location to about half a mile’s accuracy with friends. It will even be able to show the locations of your associates across international borders.
The new app will prove useful to people coordinating large groups of mates on nights out or visits to concerts, to look for people who have gotten lost and also can have significant potential for travellers who can contact friends in the places they visit and take them on as unofficial taxi drivers or tour guides. It may even be a lifeline to those who normally travel and shop alone, as they can quickly meet up with any friends nearby, helping them feel possibly less lonely. Facebook has been criticised in recent years for allegedly isolating people with technology and keeping them only in interaction with their PC screens, despite its purpose being to make users more social and to supplement their real life activities. The new app is perhaps an attempt by Facebook to answer those criticisms.
People have the option to be selective about the locations they make visible. You can show your location sipping a latte at a local Starbucks or eating a burger and fries at the McDonalds in the centre of town, but can hide private places such as your home or place of work.
The app does continuously gather data even when switched off rather than standing by for a manual check-in. It will also save data listing places you were at in the past and not just places where you used the app to ‘check-in’ and announce your location to nearby friends. However the location gathering history can be switched off in Facebook’s settings, as well as delete all or certain locations from the log. However as the data will be stored on Facebook’s servers as with all other information shared on the site, people may be uncomfortable about a multinational corporation having a record of their every journey.
The new app shares similar aspects to established sites and apps such as Foursquare and Tinder, and is a sign that Facebook has seen greater potential in exploiting people’s wish to share location information. Facebook already has an option for people to tag themselves in status by linking themselves to the on-site pages of places like museums and restaurants as well as showing the rough location they are currently in. Rival social network Twitter also uses GPS technology to allow tweeps to place a location marker on their messages.