Facebook has always encouraged you to share with your friends — your favorite movies, pictures, and life updates. Now Facebook wants you sharing your location, too.
The social network on Thursday announced Nearby Friends, a new feature built into Facebook's mobile app that allows you to see which of your friends are close by, and even share your exact location with others.
The new feature uses the geolocation technology in your smart phone to determine when you are close to one of your Facebook friends. When activated, the feature will send periodic notifications alerting you to friends who are nearby. Users have been able to check in on Facebook for some time, meaning you can already share your location as part of a post, but Nearby Friends allows you to broadcast your general location to Facebook friends without posting at all.
The new feature is opt-in, meaning you'll need to activate it within the app, should you choose to participate. Users who do not activate Nearby Friends won't be affected in any way, and will not share with or receive any location information from others on the platform.
“The mission of Facebook is to connect people, to bring people together," says Andrea Vaccari, the product manager for the new feature. "Nearby Friends sort of pushes that forward by making it a little easier to find new opportunities to meet your friends while you’re out and about.”
HOW TO USE NEARBY FRIENDS
To see friends in your area, turn on Nearby Friends in settings within the mobile app. This feature is opt-in, meaning you must manually activate it if you want to be seen (or see others). Once the feature is activated, you'll go through a small tutorial that explains how to use the feature.
You can select the groups on Facebook with which you want to share your location. You can't share your location with the public or with friends of friends. You can only share it with friends or other groups that you have created, like "close friends" or "family."
Facebook will notify you when friends are nearby, at which point you can message those friends if you want to connect. You won't be able to see a friend's exact location, however. For example, the app may say that a friend is within two miles, but the exact coordinates will not be shared automatically.
The app won't specify a distance closer than 0.5 miles, but Nearby Friends can discover people that are much further away — even on a separate coast. One Facebook employee used the feature to track another employee's travels through Europe.
You can show your exact location to a friend, if you so choose, by sharing your location on a map for a set amount of time (until 6 p.m., for example) or by sharing your location indefinitely. When you choose this option, the friend you share with will have access to your exact location in real-time. Sharing your specific location may make sense if you are trying to help someone find you for lunch or drinks. Otherwise, simply being alerted that a friend is in the area may be enough.
If you turn on Nearby Friends, it will not turn off automatically. You will continue to broadcast your approximate location until the feature is manually turned off. Users be reminded that they are sharing their location thanks to push notifications, says Vaccari.
The new feature is intended to help friends meet offline, says Vaccari, whose startup Glancee was acquired by Facebook back in 2012. Vaccari, who grew up in Italy, was building similar technology at Glancee in order to meet new people, a challenge he faced when he came to the United States. At Facebook, the technology only applies to a user's friends, which Vaccari believes will encourage more people to try it out.
Facebook has been testing the feature with the "vast majority" of the company's 6,500-plus employees for close to 18 months, according to Vaccari. During that time, Facebook used employee feedback to shape the feature and hone the notification algorithm. At the beginning, users received notifications that they had friends nearby all the time, says Vaccari.
Those notifications were scaled back as the product evolved. Alerting you that a friend is nearby every time you walk into the office or get home to your roommate defeated the purpose, the team decided.
Like many of Facebook's technologies, the feature adapts as it learns more about you. “The app learns where you spend most of your time, and it avoids sending notifications when you’re at those locations," explains Vaccari. Facebook collects this data and stores it on company servers, but Vaccari claims that it will never be used for purposes outside of Nearby Friends.
Users can delete this data from the servers at any time by clearing their activity within settings, he adds.
For many users, the thought of Facebook collecting data about the places they visit most often is frightening, a fear Vaccari is aware of. It's one of the reasons the feature is opt-in, and a major reason you can only see and share with friends and not strangers. “We are totally OK with people not wanting to opt in right away," he says.
Facebook will begin posting in users' News Feeds to encourage users to try out the service. Those who don't have Nearby Friends activated will see upsell ads, reminders that the feature is available. Those who do have the feature activated will be reminded it's turned on with similar stories that highlight who among their friends is also using the service.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised in January that Facebook would be launching a number of standalone apps this year, but Nearby Friends is obviously not one of them. Instead, the feature has been built into the existing Facebook flagship app in order to maximize Facebook's user base. Offering the product as a standalone app would have given Vaccari and his team more flexibility, but in order to get users on board, they wanted to go where the users already were.
Nearby Friends is only available in the United States, and will be rolling out to users slowly, a strategy Facebook often implements with new products. Both iOS and Android users will be able to get the update.
After nearly two years of working on the product, Vaccari is ready to see it in the hands of everyday users, not just Facebook employees. “My hope is that people will see from their friends that there is actually a lot of value in this experience," he says. "I'm curious to see how people are going to use it."
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