Facebook Nearby Friends Feature Puts the Social Back in Networking

Facebook, competing with more apps for users' attention, is giving subscribers a new reason to check in—the Nearby Friends feature.

Facebook already helps users of its mobile app discover nearby restaurants and shops, and soon that helpfulness will extend to capital-F Friends.

On April 17, Facebook announced the rollout of Nearby Friends. The GPS-based feature alerts users when people they know are nearby and game for some company.

For friends to learn that friends are nearby, both parties must have the option turned on. Users can also choose which of their Friends—everyone, close friends or a specific list of friends—can see when they're nearby.

The app pushes alerts about nearby friends to a smartphone's home screen.

Users can adjust the proximity of their location in increments. Someone can be told that you're 1 mile or 0.7 miles away, for example, or just in a specific neighborhood. That it's proximity that Facebook shares, and not exact location, is a privacy veil some users may appreciate; though it's also possible to set an exact location—a park or a bar, for example—and say how long you'll be there.

The feature may help the company combat assertions that rather than connecting people it actually isolates them. ("Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" was the title of a 2012 article in The Atlantic.) But more importantly, it'll help Facebook get more smartphone users tapping into its app throughout the day, instead of into rival such as Instagram and Twitter.

"This is about two things: giving people a reason to share their current location, which could be useful to Facebook for advertising, and giving people more reasons to use Facebook, or open the Facebook app in general," Jan Dawson, principal analyst with Jackdaw Research, told eWEEK.

"The challenge with most check-in apps [like Foursquare] is you always have to remember to do it when you arrive somewhere new, and there’s often little incentive," Dawson added. "[Nearby Friends] should encourage more people to (a) opt in to sharing their location and (b) remember to check in when they go somewhere."

In January, Facebook announced year-end 2013 results that surpassed analyst expectations. The 10-year-old company's fiscal 2013 fourth quarter was its best quarter ever, with revenue of $2.59 billion, up from $1.59 billion a year earlier.

Still, a report the same month from iStrategyLabs showed that between January 2011 and January 2014, Facebook lost more than 3 million teenage users. (During the same period that it was losing that 25.3 percent of its teen subscribers, it saw an 80.4 percent growth in users ages 55 and older.)

Still, Facebook's total user base, according to the report—which pulled its data from Facebook's Social Advertising platform—was 180 million subscribers, up from 146 million in 2011.

In February, Facebook paid essentially $19 billion to acquire mobile messaging app Whatsapp in an effort to recoup some of those young users. As of February, WhatsApp had 450 million users, 70 percent of whom were active on a given day.

"WhatsApp is on a path to connect 1 billion people," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in his announcement of the deal. "The services that reach that milestone are all incredibly valuable."

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