Why Does Facebook Want You To Broadcast Your Location To Your Friends?

Facebook is trying to get you to share even more information, this time by beaming your location to your friends all the time.

The optional feature, called Nearby Friends, is built to help you find people around you. You can tailor the options to prevent specific friends from seeing your location. Nearby Friends alerts you to when friends are in your area, and allows you to share your precise location with them for a set period of time. On the upside, it might inspire some friends to meet up in the real world. 

The success (or lack thereof) of place-based social apps like Highlight show us that most people are perfectly happy keeping their location to themselves, unless they want to explicitly share it with friends. Running into someone on the street is just not the same when you know they’ve been following your location online in the hopes of a “surprise” connection.

A Nosey Friend Who’s Trying Too Hard

Facebook, like an overbearing acquaintance who keeps asking about your weekend plans, has made a habit of asking its users for their location—and doesn’t seem to get the message when it’s snubbed.

In 2011, Facebook rolled out a Foursquare-like check-in feature called Facebook Places in its mobile app. Most users ignored it, and Facebook eventually killed it, opting instead to let users include location in photos and status updates.

A year later, the company attempted a similar feature that let anyone see your location, including complete strangers. Facebook quickly pulled the short-lived “Find Friends Nearby,” after many people raised privacy concerns.

The company is ready to try again, and this time is quick to point out the feature is optional and only shows your location to people you want to see it. 

But the question remains: Do we really want our Facebook friends to know where we are at all times? 

There are already numerous services that let people share their exact location with friends, and in more intimate settings. Apps like WhatsApp, GroupMe, and Path let you share your location on a map with individuals or small, defined groups. Foursquare check-ins can be broadcast to both Twitter and Facebook, or shared to the smaller set of friends you have on that service.

With all these services, users are actively sharing their location, with a fairly strong idea of who will receive the information and when they’ll see it. But with Facebook’s new feature, users will be passively sharing their whereabouts, not knowing who is looking for them, or when they’ll be found. 

Our Facebook accounts are no longer just for friends—the average user has 338 “friends,” many of whom they’d rather not accidentally run into at the grocery store. Sure, you can create specific lists with whom you share your location, but it’s likely those same people would be the ones you want to spend time with, and are likely in contact with on other apps, or even—gasp—in real life.

A Battery Of Complaints

There’s one more downside that Facebook is likely loathe for users to think about.

The new feature will require users to turn on location services for the Facebook app, if they haven’t already done so. That will likely cause a huge drain on battery life. One former Apple Store Genius Bar employee recommends disabling Facebook location services as the best way to save your iPhone’s battery.

Until Facebook delivers proper value to its users in exchange for learning their location—information that’s obviously valuable to advertisers—it’s not clear why anyone should make this tradeoff.

There’s an obvious better way for Facebook to encourage users to share their location in a way that’s useful to them: Facebook Messenger. The current system has a very crude way to share one’s location, by clicking an arrow. All that does is inform the other user of your current city, which is useless if you’re trying to get together with a friend. Adding a way to share one’s specific location, down to a specific business, office, or other venue, with a specific group of people is an obvious move, and would keep Facebook Messenger competitive with other messaging apps. It would also put users in full control, since they would select exactly who to share location with and when.

One reason why Facebook might not be doing this is that its directory of places is not yet fast, accurate, or complete enough to be useful. WhatsApp, which Facebook recently purchased for $19 billion, uses Foursquare’s database, not Facebook’s, and Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing service, is testing a switch from Foursquare to Facebook with apparently poor results.

Rather than alerting people to nearby friends and hoping for the best, Facebook ought to fix its own places directory and let users share their location in a way they’ve shown they want to. It seems so obvious—but for the world’s largest social network, maybe locating a clue is harder than we think.

Update:A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Nearby Friends displays your precise location at all times. You don’t see the exact location on a map unless your friend has chosen to share their location with you, you just see if they are nearby.

Images courtesy of Facebook

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