Facebook’s “Nearby Friends” must work against the historical failure of people discovery

Facebook Nearby Friends

Do we really care about who is around us? Many social media companies have envisioned the internet as a facilitator for real world interaction — a way to make it easier to see the people we care about. So far, though, it’s been tough to get a critical mass of users interested in features like these.

Can Facebook do better? Last week, the company  announced that it would roll out a “Nearby Friends” feature for mobile, essentially allowing users to not only broadcast their approximate location, but to search for users nearby to meet up with. The feature itself could provide Facebook with a lot of rich data on how users explore their immediate surroundings, opening the platform up to push geolocated ads and other content that could prove to be a big boon for Facebook over time.

For Nearby Friends to work, though, people will actually have to use the feature: In the past, bigger companies have phased out the technology and smaller companies have shut down due to lack of traction. Here’s a quick retrospective on a few companies that have attempted to make people discovery happen, and the challenges in taking the feature mainstream.

Early Days: Foursquare and GoogleFoursquare Nearby

Early iterations of the Nearby Friends concept are found on Google — with its Latitude Feature — and Foursquare. Both technologies were launched in 2009, as Google brought Latitude to its mobile Maps product and Foursquare launched at South by Southwest. Both services were somewhat primitive. Google Latitude started as a way simply for people to share their location, but became more sophisticated over time. Meanwhile, Foursquare’s technology could only filter friends who recently checked in at a nearby location, rather than seeing everything in real time.

Neither company could get its location-based people discovery features off the ground. Google finally shuttered Latitude in August 2013 and rolled some of its features into its new Maps product. Foursquare, after actually removing and reinstating its Nearby Friends feature in 2012, has shifted focus away from check-ins. Most recently, the company has doubled down on passive technology, turning the platform into a recommendations app rather than a gamified social network. It’s also recognized the value of its location data, most recently inked a licensing deal with Microsoft to generate revenue. In short, while Foursquare’s Nearby Friends never really died, the app’s decision to shift made it somewhat toothless.

But the changes made by Google and Foursquare were well-informed by their explorations into people discovery, even if the features themselves never took off.

Hot trend: Highlight, Sonar, and Glancee

The real lessons about the sustainability of Nearby Friends are found in the batch of apps that managed to break through at South By Southwest in 2012: Highlight, Sonar and Glancee.

These “passive ambient location” apps that constantly fed personal and social data about users nearby, the three apps made a splash at SXSW — an arguably ideal use case, since a high concentration of early adopters was available to test out the services in Austin. Facebook acquired Glancee in May of 2012, and now members of that team worked on the Nearby Friends feature.

Highlight is still up and running, although it continuously struggles to recreate the buzz it had in Austin, and it doesn’t share its current user data. Its last big push was in December of last year, when it unveiled Highlight 2.0 — a “smarter” version of the app designed to dynamically adjust the radius of users and filter out unwanted alerts. But, despite a boost into the Top 100 apps in the U.S. on iOS days after the announcement, the app hasn’t seen anything close to sustainable popularity.

Sonar met its end in 2013, and CEO Brett Martin published a thoughtful post-mortem of the company on Medium. The lessons Martin spotlights not only tell the story of Sonar’s demise, but also of the issues of people discovery at large: it has no clear use case, it relies on the effectiveness of other social networks (broadcasting through Facebook or Twitter) to connect with others, and, perhaps most importantly, it drives engagement but not growth:

“Growth is the only thing that matters if you are building a social network. Period. Engagement is great but you aren’t even going to get the meeting unless your top-line numbers reach a certain threshold.”

Under the umbrella of Facebook’s cash flow, Friends Nearby doesn’t need to carry the company, but it does need to transcend the growth problems that have plagued the trend from the beginning.

Right now: Grindr and Tinder

The best (and most successful) use cases of a Nearby feature might be found in the dating apps Grindr and Tinder. Grindr, a gay dating app released in 2009, primarily populates its app based on proximity: 100 nearby users show up in a user’s feed, prioritized by distance as close as dozens of feet away. Tinder, a mobile dating app that has quickly become a go-to for college and twenty-somethings, also factors in location to populate the app with singles who share social graph connections or similar interests.

Tinder

While these apps have successfully deployed location technology to bring online social interaction into the real world, there’s one caveat: they help users meet new people, not find friends they already have. In this crucial aspect, Grindr and Tinder really aren’t like Facebook Nearby at all — they serve a different purpose, meeting new people, so their features are used with different intent.

But Facebook Nearby can learn from these apps in a crucial way: making discovery addictive. If Facebook can manage to make its Nearby feature fun and simple enough to entice users to check it multiple times per day, then it has a better shot of becoming a feature that more people will use, which will increase value over time. Facebook could do that by bringing surprise into the app — say, alerting users to when friends who aren’t normally nearby are in town, or randomly generating the information of a friend of a friend with similar interests. By incorporating real discovery into people discovery, not just nearby friends, Facebook might finally craft the right mix.

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