Everyone knows Facebook is struggling with mobile – its apps are clunky and unreliable and the firm’s inability to find a viable advertising model on the small screen was the main reason for the disastrous stock collapse following its recent IPO. Facebook’s latest feature ‘Find Friends Nearby’, (initially called ‘Friendshake’), released over the weekend aims to attract more mobile users with location aware technology. However, it could upset some people.
The new feature allows you to search for new contacts in your vicinity and introduce yourself with a ‘Friendshake’. The technology works by using the GPS technology in mobile devices to find out who is around, but to find someone they also must be logged into Facebook as well as the FFN platform.
Twitter was the buzzword at SXSW 2007 and at this year’s event, location-aware app Highlight was the most talked about start-up alongside similar tools Glancee and Banjo. However, unlike Twitter, we are yet to see the explosion in popularity of these tools and Highlight is already being called a flop.
In May, Facebook bought Glancee in what was seen as an acqui-hire and although it is not clear if the new feature has been created out of that acquisition, less than two months later we have ‘Find Friends Nearby’. Location-aware tools seem the next logical step for mobile social networks but does the slow take-up mean that people see this as a little creepy?
Is privacy dead?
Mark Zuckerberg was famously quoted as saying ‘privacy is no longer the social norm’ in 2010, and certainly looking at the details people post online these days, you would tend to agree with him, but this latest step may be different. Sure, people use check-in tools to tell ‘friends’ where they are (no doubt very useful information for burglars) without issue – but friends knowing what pub you’re at is very different to a total stranger having access to your name and personal details just because he/she is in the same building. This idea that people could use the tool to ‘spy’ on others in their surroundings might unsettle people, but Facebook doesn’t see FFN being used that way.
Ryan Patterson, the engineer behind ‘Find Friends Nearby’ claims it was designed to quickly add people who you meet at a specific event — like a conference, or a bar. “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,” Patterson told TechCrunch. “Facebook search might be effective, or sharing your vanity addresses or business cards, but this tool provides a really easy way to exchange contact information with multiple people with minimal friction.”
This does sound useful but it’s hard not to see the feature being abused. Earlier this year the app ‘Girls Around Me’ – a location-aware app that allowed users search for girls in their area based on social media ‘check-ins’ - caused consternation over fears it would be used by sexual predators and was quickly shut down. Facebook could well be opening itself up to legal problems at a time when the big tech firms are being investigated for breaching privacy laws, particularly in the EU.
However, Zuckerberg may be right about the new social norm and even if he’s not, will people really read the small print before they automatically install this new app? Despite the relatively slow uptake of apps like Highlight I wouldn’t be surprised if telegraphing your location to the world becomes standardised in the next few years.
‘Find friends nearby’ is now available on Facebook’s iOS and Android apps and also accessible at http://fb.com/ffn.