Your phone always knows where you are. And now, if you want, your Facebook friends will always know where you are, too.
Facebook is introducing a mobile feature called Nearby Friends that taps into that steady stream of location information so friends can track each other in real time.
The idea is to make it easy for people to meet up in real life, so they can have conversations in person instead of comment threads, temporarily replacing Likes and LOLs with eye contact and actual laughter. A live meet-up is also an excellent opportunity to grab a selfie with your pal and upload it to the Facebook owned Instagram.
In a refreshing change, the new Nearby Friends feature is not turned on by default.
Friends will not be able to see where you are unless you decide live-tracking is something you want in your life and visit Facebook’s settings to turn it on. Making a potentially invasive new feature opt-in suggests Facebook has perhaps learned from some of its past mistakes and privacy problems.
You can choose to share your general location with all your Facebook friends, close friends or a customized list of people you feel most comfortable with. Further minimizing the potential stalking factor, your location is only shared with other people who are also using the feature and who have chosen to share their location with you.
When turned on, Nearby Friends shows a list of approved Facebook friends who also use the feature and shows their approximate location. A push notification can tell you how many of your friends are nearby. Open the app to see a list of pals, the neighborhood or city where they are, how many miles away that is from your current location, and a time stamp of when they where there.
There is an option to share your exact location with specific friends, which can be handy for coordinating large groups at concerts or finding someone in a crowded area. Your friends will see a little image of your face on a map for a set period of time.
Nearby Friends will be available on Facebook’s iOS and Android apps, but will only work for select locations at first.
Facebook, Instagram and many other apps already include features that let people “check-in” to locations, but those location features are different because you decide if and when to share each specific location. You might check into a Starbucks downtown, but never into your home or other spot you’d rather keep private. Nearby Friends is continuously gathering details about where you are in the background instead of waiting for a manual check-in.
This is not the first time an app has used location information to physically connect friends. Similar apps such as Highlight, which got a flurry of attention in 2012, mapped out the locations of nearby strangers. Facebook also purchased a startup in 2012 called Glancee that also connected strangers. That technology evolved into this new, more private feature.
If you turn on the Nearby Friends feature, Facebook starts collecting data on your exact location and keeps details on where you’ve been in the past, not just places where you’ve used its app to check in. It also collects location information even when the Facebook app is closed.
But you can turn off this location history in the Facebook app’s settings. It’s possible to delete individual locations from a history, or clear the whole thing and start from scratch.