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Facebook's Nearby Friends Feature: Friend or Foe?

Recently, social network giant Facebook announced Nearby Friends, a new mobile app feature that allows you to broadcast your location and see if any of your friends are in your geographic area. Despite all the hype, the technology has been greeted with mixed responses. On the one hand, Facebook and its advertisers are eagerly touting its ability to help people connect with each other and local businesses. Critics, however, say that the location history invades users' privacy.

How Does It Work?

By default, the Nearby Friends feature is turned "off" on the mobile app. This means that your Facebook friends cannot see your location unless you manually turn "on" both Nearby Friends and your GPS. Once you've enabled the technologies, your Facebook friends—and advertisers—will be able to see roughly where you are, approximated within a half mile or so. If you're trying to find your buddy, then you can share your exact location with one another for a designated period of time. An updating map shows where you and your buddy are so you can meet up more easily.

At this time, Facebook claims that they are the only ones who can see your location history. Eventually, local businesses will be able to display targeted advertisements, such as promoting happy hour specials to entice nearby Facebook users to walk in.

The Upside

If Nearby Friends works well for helping you meet up with your cohorts, then it certainly has the potential to be a time-saver. It could also help you re-connect with acquaintances by notifying you when they're in town. And if you're heading towards a store or restaurant, then you probably wouldn't turn down a handy coupon.

The Downside

Unfortunately, Facebook keeps track of where you are and where you've been—and it keeps doing so until you tell it to stop. Nearby Friends can be turned "off" at any time, but it must be done manually. You can also delete your location history (where you were previously), although this setting is trickier to find within the app.

On a more practical level, since this feature requires GPS, you'll lose battery power more quickly if you forget to disable Nearby Friends. And since nothing is completely secure, running GPS and Facebook with Nearby Friends leaves you vulnerable to hackers, government agencies, or intruders.

Conclusion

Is the lack of privacy required by Nearby Friends worth all the excitement? It's hard to say. Previous efforts at introducing "people discovery" have crashed and burned—think of Foursquare or Google's Latitude feature. These companies' technologies were designed to help users locate their friends, but the products never caught on. Sonar, a similar program, died with dignity in 2013 with a thoughtful analysis from CEO Brett Martin; as he pointed out, people discovery depends heavily on other social networks such as Facebook, but more importantly it promotes engagement but not growth. And without growth, survival becomes very difficult.

Martin's description suggests that Nearby Friends has a higher chance of success than its predecessors. It's riding on the coattails of a wildly popular Facebook platform, but the key to its long-term success may rest on whether it can go beyond engagement to fuel growth.