While a fair corner of the internet was in angry mob mode because Facebook changed users’ default emails to firstname.lastname@example.org, several others were aware of another Facebook dealing that seemed even more nefarious. This past Monday, Facebook quietly unleashed the “Find Friends Nearby” feature, a mobile app that would allow users to see which other users were in proximity.
The folks at Facebook underestimated the web’s skill at seeing the worst in everything. It took just a few hours for bloggers to proclaim “Friends Nearby” the "stalker app." With just a mobile phone, they claimed, Facebook stalkers could easily graduate to real life stalkers with the push of a button.
By Tuesday, the feature was gone, another ghost in Facebook’s haunted house of ideas everyone hated.
On it’s face, “Find Friends Nearby” doesn’t seem so bad. It almost seems useful (as useful as any Facebook app can hope to be, anyway). The test version that was rolled out was similar to other GPS-utilizing apps like Highlight. Users who opted into the feature could see other users who had also opted in and were close by. That is, if you didn’t opt in, no one would see you on the feature.
Ryan Patterson, the father of the feature, claimed it would be a really easy way for people that were already meeting in person to share information. Basically, you could be networking at a bar with someone and easily become Facebook friends via the app, almost like exchanging business cards.
However, some wondered, what if the app was less “Friends Nearby” and more “Sexual Predators/Potential Prey Nearby”?
Hypothetically, the feature would let an ex know if you were in his or her proximity (assuming you have both opted into the app). It could also possibly reveal a few personal details, like your name/favorite Beatles album, to random creeps in the area (again, assuming you are all opted in).
Fortunately, those would-be stalkers will have to stay chained to their keyboards for now. Facebook quickly shut down the feature (which was never officially released), calling the whole rollout simply a test. Considering the backlash, it’s probably safe to assume the test failed.
Would knowing the names of nearby people actually lead to an uptick of assaults? No one can say.
While there are many out there labeling Facebook the new Big Brother right now, let’s not forget that we aren’t legally required to have a Facebook profile. The company’s policy of begging forgiveness instead of asking permission may not be the most advisable, but we are a far way away from a dystopia ruled by Comrade Zuckerberg.