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Facebook Nearby Friends benefits may not outweigh privacy concerns

Facebook's Nearby Friends makes it easier for people to share their locations with people they trust.
Facebook's Nearby Friends makes it easier for people to share their locations with people they trust.
Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images

On Sunday, April 20, Kurt Wagner of Mashable explained how to use a new Facebook feature called Nearby Friends that is guaranteed to make people in the greater Spokane area who are concerned about their privacy feel uncomfortable. Much like Foursquare or other services that allow people to share their locations from their smart phones and other devices, Nearby Friends gives Facebook users the option of letting friends they trust have a rough idea of where they currently are.

Wagner added that Nearby Friends users have the option of sending people their exact locations, along with maps to help their friends find them. To some people, this may sound like a fun and useful tool. For those who value their privacy over all other considerations, like many adults over the age of 30 in the Spokane area, this may sound downright Orwellian and scary because it may conjure up images of Big Brother watching them. His description of how easy it is to use the feature may not allay any of those fears.

According to Wagner, "You can turn on Nearby Friends by clicking on the chat menu in the app's upper right-hand corner. If the feature has been rolled out to you, it will appear at the top of the page, above the list of friends who are online. There's a chance you may not have the feature, yet; Facebook is rolling it out slowly, and just to U.S. users for now.

"...When Nearby Friends is activated, you'll be able to see which of your friends are close by, and roughly how close. For example, it may say that you have a friend within half a mile, but it won't share more specific details unless that friend chooses to share his or her exact location with you. Next to the distance will be a time, usually labeled in minutes; this tells you when that user's location was last updated within the app.

"If you want to see more about someone nearby, you can click on his or her name within the list; this will take you to a small version of that user's profile page, where you can send him or her a message ('Hey, I didn't know you were in town!') or even give them a call.

"If you see someone with whom you want to share your exact location, you can click the little directional-arrow button to the right of that user's name; this enables you to share your exact location with him or her for a set amount of time. You can include a short note to your friend, here (up to 40 characters). And you can also set what time you want to stop sharing your location by using the timeline that pops up.

"If you choose to share your exact location, but then change your mind before that set time is up, you can manually end the connection at any time. To do this, simply click on the directional arrow once again, and select 'Stop Sharing This.'"

In an update posted in the Facebook newsroom, Product Manager Andrea Vaccari gave an overview of how Nearby Friends works. Vaccari stressed that the feature can be turned off if people don't want to use it. He added that there are some restrictions to protect users' privacy.

According to Vaccari, "Nearby Friends is an optional feature. You can choose who can see if you’re nearby (for example: your friends, close friends, or a specific friends list) and you can turn it on and off at any time.

"Sharing your location with Nearby Friends goes two ways — you and your friends both have to turn on Nearby Friends and choose to share with each other to see when you’re nearby. Your friends will only be able to see that you’re nearby if you share this info with them and vice versa."

Wagner added more specific details of how Nearby Friends limits who can see someone's current location. He said that information is not made available to the general public or "even friends of friends." The app gives users the option of limiting that sharing to only the people in Facebook groups they created, which gives more precise control over who can see where they are.

Nearby Friends has some potential drawbacks that may outweigh the benefits for many Facebook users in the Spokane area. For example, it stays on automatically unless people decide to turn it off. This could lead to people unintentionally sharing their locations in situations when they don't want to use the app. In addition to that, Josh Constine of TechCrunch recently reported that Facebook will keep track of people's location histories unless they use a button that allows them to clear it. This is intended to provide better service for Nearby Friends users, but it will also be used eventually for targeted ads based on the places they go.

According to Constine, "When I asked if it could power advertising, a Facebook spokesperson told me 'at this time it’s not being used for advertising or marketing, but in the future it will be.'

"It wouldn’t confirm exactly how, but I foresee it targeting you with ads for businesses that could actually be in sight or just a few hundred feet away. An ad for a brick-and-mortar clothing shop would surely be more relevant if shown when you’re on the same block. The ability to generate foot traffic that leads to sales could let Location History-powered Facebook ads generate big returns on investment for meatspace business advertisers. That means they'd be willing to pay more for these hyper-local ads than for ones pointed to users who are far away and much less likely to visit their store."

That right there may be a deal breaker for many people in the Spokane County area. Public sentiment is generally opposed to more Facebook ads already, so the idea of marketing based on someone's current location may feel too invasive and pushy. So, not only is Big Brother watching, but he thinks it would be a good idea to stop by Auntie's Bookstore before heading to the Spokane Convention Center for an event. Someone who enjoys using the app the way Vaccari described it as a way to simplify doing things with friends may turn it off for good after seeing those ads.

Fortunately for people who would rather not share that much about themselves or help Facebook market to them more effectively, the app has to be turned on before it does anything. The simplest way to deal with it for people who have concerns about it is to not use it.

It seems likely that many people in the Spokane area will completely avoid it just to be on the safe side, while perhaps younger adults in the coveted 18-29 demographic might be more willing to give it a chance. Many of them are already active on Instagram and other services that share their personal information with others, so they may be less worried about the potential disadvantages of being more accessible to people they know. It will be interesting to see if the app catches on in the community, or if it goes the way of MySpace after people play with it for a while.