Facebook's new app feature allows users to track friends who are close by. But is that a good thing?
I came late to cellphone ownership. After spending most of my twenties wandering from city to city and country to country, the idea of having an instant line of communication with all the people I’d met began to make sense.
The cell phone was useless for those friends who lived nearby and whom I saw regularly. I already knew what they were doing, and would likely see them soon enough to relate something interesting. But for those I would see maybe once a year, the idea of a cellphone seemed a permissible indulgence, even if it wasn't entirely sensible or necessary. So in 2006, I bought one.
In the intervening years, my phone is no longer much use in maintaining relationships with people on the other side of the globe, all of whom have receded into marriage or career or other networks of friends more immediately meaningful to them. Meanwhile, the group of friends whose daily lives I did see have slowly withdrawn behind a veil of digital transmissions—a few joking text messages or some shared IMs interrupting the work day.
That veil deepened incrementally last week with Facebook's release of Nearby Friends, a feature that allows users to see the general location of people on their Friends List relative to their own location.
The Facebook of lunch photos, inside jokes, and suburban inanity has been subsumed by the Facebook of breaking news, political opinion, boosterism, and product fandom, all of which dampens the ease for social encounter that once drew people to the service.
Facebook has been testing this idea for a number of years, with Wired discovering a rudimentary version in 2012. At that time, the feature was thought of as a marginal convenience mostly intended for people who'd just met in public and wanted to avoid the inconvenience of misspelled names before being able to locate one another. That use-case has been de-emphasized with Friends Nearby, which project manager and former Glancee executive Andrea Vaccari tells The Verge is more about reaching a wide group of people than targeting a few specific ones. "While building Glancee, we learned that sharing that you’re nearby is a lot more powerful than sharing exactly where you are, because people are much more likely to share with a larger audience," she said.
The reliance and scale and the churn of crowds to create the impression of meaningful activity has become essential to maintaining Facebook’s user growth rate, which has begun to slow significantly, growing by only 4 percent in North America in 2013. The Facebook of lunch photos, inside jokes, and suburban inanity has been subsumed by the Facebook of breaking news, political opinion, boosterism, and product fandom, all of which dampens the ease for social encounter that once drew people to the service.
In a post documenting the failure of person finder-app Sonar, Brett Martin describes how much more important user growth rates are than the quality of user engagement to investors. "We focused on engagement, which we improved by orders of magnitude," Martin wrote. "No one cared. Growth is the only thing that matters if you are building a social network. Period. Engagement is great but you aren’t even going to get the meeting unless your top-line numbers reach a certain threshold (which is different for seed vs. series A vs. selling advertising)."
It may be more accurate to think of Nearby Friends not as a way of addressing momentary loneliness by providing information about all the unseen social possibilities in the vicinity, but as a means of Facebook broadcasting itself, turning its users into relays in as many different avenues of their life as possible. In doing so the site has made its long-term project the opposite of social exchange, inserting another mediating layer into relationships compounding the intrusive effects of job, family, and geography.
It's apt that the active but unspoken verb in Friends Nearby is "find," a tool presuming to deliver something missing, seeming to calm the creeping unease of relating to others through symbolic data in an increasingly hostile and untrustworthy network. That we have come to a point in history where we rely on computers to tell us whether or not we have any friends nearby confirms a paranoia about the unwelcoming atmosphere of our present surroundings, all while a digital network carefully curates a list of options for who and where we can run to.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.