Browsing Facebook With Open Arms

A new, hidden “Find Friends Nearby” feature hints at a wildly different future for Facebook. Get ready to make some friends on Facebook, finally.

This morning, Ingrid Lunden at Techcrunch stumbled on a new Facebook feature called Find Friends Nearby. You can try it here, or in the iPhone and Android Facebook apps (it’s under the Apps > Find Friends menu). In the comments, the engineer who designed it explained his intentions:

For me, 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.

His explanation makes it out to be a glorified business card tool; at most, a quicker way to find someone on Facebook after meeting them. But it’s also Facebook’s first real step into ambient location apps — in other words, it’s a big step into the real world.

Ambient location tools were the star (well, “star”) of SXSW this year, but seem to have tapered off into obscurity almost immediately afterwards. Highlight, an app that notifies you every time you’re physically close to another Highlight user, won a Pyrrhic victory over Glancee to become the defining app in a category that most new users perceived as overwhelmingly creepy, only to be snubbed by Facebook, which then bought its competitor.

Highlight’s (and Glancee’s) problem was that it was too good at what it did. During that crowded testing phase, a day with Highlight would leave your notification tray flooded with strangers, your battery dead and your will to meet new people completely spent with little to show for it. It was useful when you were looking for new people — like, say, at SXSW — but at any other time, it was overkill.

With Find Friends Nearby, Facebook seems to understand this. It’s two degrees less intrusive than Highlight or Glancee: first by requiring action on the user’s part, then by requiring a symmetrical action on other peoples’ part. As it works now, it isn’t much more than the business card app its engineer described it as. But it’s very easy to see how it could become something slightly more capable, and vastly more important. A “Discover New People” button that works for a limited amount of time, for example, could fundamentally change what Facebook does, making meeting new people — not just cataloging and sharing with existing friends — a real priority. Imagine using it at a concert, or at a party. It’s more useful than Facebook’s last attempt at a real-world service, Places, and more inclusive than than Foursquare Radar, particularly for people who don’t live in a densely populated urban area.

Facebook declined to comment on their future plans, telling BuzzFeed FWD, “We are constantly testing new features but have nothing more to share at this time.” But this is one of those features that makes too much sense not to evolve into something important. While this doesn’t appear to have a technological connection to Glancee, it certainly has a spiritually one.

One advantage my Twitter follow list has over my Facebook friends list is freshness. It’s full of people that I may not know as well as my Facebook friends, but who I aspire to know. My pool of Facebook friends, bless them, is worryingly stagnant. And while this isn’t the only way to get a current going, it might be a good one.

Update: FFN has been suddenly disabled; we’ll update if we hear why.

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