Facebook's "Nearby Friends" Is More About Discovering Friends Than New People

Prasant Naidu
Prasant Naidu Founder, Lighthouse Insights

Posted on April 20th 2014

Facebook's "Nearby Friends" Is More About Discovering Friends Than New People

Facebook Nearby Friends

In 2012 serendipitous discovery of people via apps was labelled as the next big thing in the Valley. You were expected to open your phone and up pops a list of potential new best friends. You walk to them, say hello and buy a drink to let the conversations happen. That cool it was and it was supposed to work the same way. This also led to a battle amongst the “people discovery apps” which grabbed the attention of media and VC pockets too.

Highlight wanted to introduce you to strangers on the street, Sonar hoped to connect you with friends of friends at a bar, and Glancee wanted to hook you up with nearby Tolkien fans. The ambient awareness technology behind all these apps was amazing, but people weren’t comfortable.

Highlight founder Paul Davison had told The Verge. “I’m completely convinced that in 10 years, this will just exist. You’ll walk into a room and you’ll know everyone’s name and where they work, and you’ll have something surface the most interesting things you have in common with people around you.”

Verge reported that Highlight had some cool technology to back it up but it turned out that people were just not interested. Serendipitous discovery of people didn’t work, some apps pivoted and some even got lucky like Glancee which was acquired by Facebook back in May, 2012. The forecast was that Facebook might focus on discovering places and not just other people.

The predictions have been proved wrong in 2014, Facebook is doing a slow roll out of a new opt-in feature called Nearby Friends. It lets friends see approximately how far away you are from them, and you can share your exact, on-going location with them for a limited time. Facebook is no more digging its head in discovering strangers but friends whom you already know and would like to connect on offline.

“We saw in the data that even though everybody was talking about social discovery, the data wasn’t corroborating that. It was the opposite.” says Glancee founder Andrea Vaccari, who’s now a product manager at Facebook and the brain behind the Nearby Friends feature. “Our users were not engaging as often with [strangers] nearby. They were using it just to meet up with friends.”

After two years in the pipeline, Nearby Friends begins rolling out on Android and iOS in the US in the coming weeks.

The opt in feature has been built to facilitate those serendipitous meetups where you run into a friend and end up having a meal or hanging out together shares Vaccari with TC.

“It’s a meatspace manifestation of Facebook’s mission to connect people, and a rebuttal to criticism that Facebook isolates us.”

How does Nearby Friends work?

The Nearby Friends feature is located at your right when you tap on the more button underneath the Nearby Places. If you don’t see it then you will have to wait to try out the new feature. Tap on the button to turn on the feature and select if you want to share your proximity with all your friends, or a specific friend list or group. The feature is entirely optional. Not only it is off by default, but even if you turn it on, you have to still choose what group of friends to share your location with. “Public” and “Friends of Friends” are not available options.

Once you do this you will be able to see a Nearby Friends list that shows the distance away in increments of a mile from anyone you’re sharing your proximity with, who has also opted in and turned on Nearby Friends feature.

Next to every friend who has turned on the feature, is a location icon you can tap, to send that person your real-time location. You’ll get a chance to choose how long to share your location and include a 40-character message about what you’re doing or want to do. You can also request the friend to share their exact location and on acceptance of the request exact coordinates with you will show up on a map view.

nearby-friends-facebook featureGetting location would also mean that Facebook will frequently pull your GPS coordinates. To minimize battery drain, it will read your accelerometer and not pull location as often if you’re staying still. Facebook’s testing says Nearby Friends 0.3% to 0.4% per hour. An issue that is yet to be solved by most of the competing apps.

“Battery saving was one of the core principles as we were developing the product,” states Vaccari.

Besides sharing precise location, Nearby Friends can send a notification when friends are nearby. Vaccari told TNW a lot of logic goes into this: you won’t get a notification for friends who are always near you, if you spend a lot of time in a certain area, if you check-in with someone, if you are walking or traveling in a vehicle, if you are in the city or suburbs, and so on. Overall, Vaccari estimates you shouldn’t get more than about one notification per week.

Vaccari also shared an interesting story that makes the notification aspect particularly interesting. Two Facebook employees landed at the same airport on separate flights, were told they were nearby, met up, and decided to take a taxi together to save money for the ride.

Here’s a Facebook video that shows how the Nearby Friends works:

Privacy?

The primary reason why most of the location apps or friend finding apps didn’t pickup was due to the reason that it required location sharing compromising the privacy of the user. To add to it Facebook has a past that has been criticised for its privacy policies. But with Nearby Friends, Facebook seems to respect privacy for now.nearby-friends-security featureAs mentioned earlier it is off by default and works only once you tap it on it and only with a set of known friends who are ready to share the details. You can turn it off any time with a few taps. You can set who sees your proximity, they have to be sharing their proximity with you to see yours, you have to explicitly share exact location, and unless you set it to share indefinitely, your exact location will disappear within a day.

“We decided to make it an opt-in experience. If you turn off the feature, the Facebook app will continue to work just as it has to this day.” In other words, he says to TNW that it’s a “totally additive experience.”

But that doesn’t mean tht Facebook won’t coax its users who are either unaware of this feature or not excited to use it. Facebook will begin posting in users’ News Feeds to encourage users to try out the service, reports Mashable. 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.

Vaccari says that, “My hope is that when they’re reminded with News Feed stories about the opportunity to meet friends, people will start to appreciate that. Even if you have the impression that this is scary, it’s not.”

Nearby Friends looks like a perfect feature from its face and barred from privacy issues for now. However, this also means that people create a list of their close friends they’re comfortable sharing their proximity with and select that as the privacy setting. The big question here is how many of the Facebook users are aware of precise sharing and what if they forget to turn off the feature when they don’t want it on?

Business opportunity?

Facebook, for now, has no plans to use Nearby Friends for ad targeting. But why would Facebook leave this opportunity? If there isn’t a business opportunity then acquiring Glancee in 2012 and the efforts to build a feature like this for two years makes no business logic. With better data on the location of its users, Facebook could potentially show more relevant ads, make better recommendations.

With Friends Nearby feature Facebook is disrupting the space of friend’s discovery rather than random people discovery. While the feature remains buried inside Facebook’s “More” menu, a drawer of features that doesn’t get tapped too often, according to recent research, the feature can grow itself into a standalone app matching to the vision of Facebook for building standalone apps with its new Creative Labs. Vaccari hopes it will.

A lot lies on the future to see how users will respond to Friends Nearby feature, how aggressively the company will coax its users and how users would be educated enough before using such features (users who are comfortable with sharing their location will be prompted with a tutorial).

Prasant Naidu

Prasant Naidu

Founder, Lighthouse Insights

Founder and Blogger at http://lighthouseinsights.in, Indian social and digital media news.

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