Facebook’s ‘Nearby Friends’ Feature: How It Works and Who Can See You

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Facebook has already gone a long way to make sure that people have an easy time making friends, keeping in touch digitally, finding out more about one another, and sharing embarrassing nights out — whether through photo or video. With a new addition to the main Facebook app, it seems the social networking giant wants to help us get a little bit closer — in person.

The new app feature, dubbed “Nearby Friends,” will allow Facebook friends to let one another know when they’re nearby by supplying approximate distances. So, if Timmy has the feature turned on and is walking around downtown at the same time as his friend Sally, they might be able to meet up for lunch — assuming they both want to. That’s the simple version of it, but obviously an application that is sharing as sensitive of data as location requires a little bit more finesse in how it handles that data.

According to TechCrunch, the “Nearby Friends” feature — note that it is not a full app itself, but a feature within the Facebook app — works in a manner that will generally keep users from over-sharing or accidentally broadcasting their precise location to people they’d rather not. First off, the feature is an opt-in system, so users will not automatically be broadcasting their location to everyone until they find and turn it off. Almost every further option within the feature requires a user to choose to allow it, rather than the inverse. This will ensure that no one is getting tracked by people they don’t want following them.

As TechCrunch reports, users can select from groups or friend lists who is able to see their approximate location, so they don’t have to allow people they met once at a bar who found them on Facebook. They can limit it to their closest friends only if they choose. At that level, this still only gives other users a measure of distance, not exact location. On top of that, it has to be a two-way street, so users who aren’t sharing their proximity won’t be able to see other people’s. Users have to go one active step further to share their exact locations with friends, and then they are able set a time-limit, after which the location will no longer be available — the default is a day.

Clearly Facebook has been very careful about this, as many users may be hesitant to share their location. It has also worked to ensure that it won’t scare away users on the battery front by keeping the battery drain minimal. Including it as part of the main Facebook app also ensures that it reaches the largest user base.

The feature may be another one of the kind that pokes its head out for a while and then fades away to be forgotten by all Facebook users, but it could function to ensure users don’t slip away to other social networking apps that offer the feature to people that want it. Even if that’s all it amounts to, it could be a worthwhile move for Facebook. It also surely gives the company something to liven up and strengthen its mobile offering — an area that its been working to improve for some time.

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