Facebook just became relevant again

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Facebook has been hitting the headlines in recent weeks, first with it’s mammoth WhatsApp purchase (really they payed all that money for an audience of ‘feature phone’ users in the developing world), and then it’s shocking entry into VR with the Oculus takeover. Today Facebook announced something that, at least in the short term, could have more impact than either of those investments. The service is called ‘Nearby Friends‘. Nearby friends lets you turn on an ‘I’m here beacon’, (with all the ordinary Facebook group and list privacy features) that says ‘I’m around’ (to anyone you’d trust enough to tell).

To understand why this is important, you have to go back in time. Location aware or geosocial networks are nothing new. Almost a decade ago, a few early social networks gave a preview of the potential of this technology. Services like Jaiku (bought and abandoned by Google) allowed users to indicate their location, in a way friends could see without actively checking in. Dodgeball, another service bought and extinguished by google, offered a more sophisticated version of the same thing (it’s frustrated founder left Google to create Foursquare). Essentially (with your consent) you could share your location with others following you. This way, you could easily see when real world friends were near. Since converting this into advertising venue was too complex (local advertising, beyond ‘which Starbucks is close’ requires a massive sales infrastructure); and since user numbers made the feature ineffectual, it quickly disappeared.

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But the promise of location awareness was obvious even then. Before Bebo had been superseded on campuses by the all consuming network effect of Facebook, I wrote about it’s potential (and potential dangers). In the years since, passive location awareness has been used primarily for dating – most notably the gay hookup app ‘Grindr’ lets users arrange casual assignations with nearby strangers. Last year Foursquare launched a passive location service. Relative to Facebook, nobody uses Foursquare – and the usefulness of location awareness is all about network effects.

The potential of the technology is enormous. If Facebook can navigate users likely fear of the downsides of location awareness – stalking, association based inference of infidelity etc – this technology could have a profound impact on how people associate in the real world.

You may have had the experience of running into a friend or acquaintance in a strange city, or even a foreign country. Instantly your previous connection is magnified by familiarity – proximity is a large part of why we enjoy the company of others. Moreover similarity (the other reason we choose friends) is relative – in a strange place we suddenly have much more in common with those from home.

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Now imagine your phone letting you know automatically when an old friend is in the neighbourhood. Or perhaps you and a neighbour from home are visiting a distant country at the same time. Beep! Your favourite cult musician / writer / storyteller / artist, is having a show down the street. Coincidences are common, but most often invisible. When they appear our perception of the size of the social world contracts. We’re all seen speculative visions of ‘google glass’ style augmented reality displays that will tell us the names of people at a party, show how we’re invisibly connected. The ability to inform others passively of ones location is potentially even more powerful. It will allow us to better connect with the people we already know. The worth of that – given Facebook’s ubiquity, is incalculable.

In the same way that the mobile phone freed us from the necessity of carefully coordinating social events like military exercises, and email shattered forever the disconnect between home and office; location awareness could change the way we relate in the real world. Will I bother going to the pub? John’s there, great. Should I pay into the gig, ah Killian’s here, it’s worth it. Damn, I’m having lunch and I didn’t think ahead, oh great Emily’s around the corner in the Deli…

Online social networks are frequently derided for promoting lots of shallow meaningless connections. It’s hard to believe now, but Facebook’s initial selling point was that it (unlike MySpace and previous social networks) better connected us with people we actually knew. Moving these increasingly tenuous connections into the real world could serve to strengthen them. Social networks – well really ‘the’ social network, since it seems impossible any company could replicate Facebook’s popularity, could finally become sociable.

Addendum: There is reason to fear however, as Facebook’s core business is no longer connecting people (if it ever way), but rather artificially keeping them apart.

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