Why Facebook Shouldn’t Have Pulled the ‘Find Friends Nearby’ App

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Imagine this scenario: You’re out with friends at a bar and you meet a group of fun people. At the end of the night, you decide that you all want to keep in touch. While business cards might seem too formal and exchanging phone numbers too personal, a Facebook connection hits the social sweet spot in between the two.

Becoming Facebook friends via your phone is a frustratingly analog experience. Carefully spelling out your name to somebody as they type it into their phone seems weirdly anachronistic in an age of Siri and NFC payments.

Facebook appeared to find a solution in the form a new app — Find Friends Nearby. It let you select a profile from a list of nearby Facebook users and, voila, you had a new Facebook friend.

As TechCrunch noted this weekend, Find Friends Nearby — initially known as “Friendshake” — was quietly rolled out with little fanfare. Users could find it through the apps menu in Facebook for Android and iOS and by visiting Facebook’s mobile site.

All in all, it seemed like a useful tool for making new Facebook friends. So why did Facebook kill it on Monday afternoon?

The company officially gave Wired this statement:

This wasn’t a formal release — this was just something that a few engineers were testing. With all tests, some get released as full products, others don’t.

While that might be the truth, it’s hard to believe it didn’t pull the app partly because of the privacy issues raised by the press. Whenever you signed into Find Friends Nearby, you saw a list of all Facebook users in the vicinity who were also signed into the app. Anytime an app uses GPS to tell strangers that you’re nearby, it’s going to raise questions about privacy. Similar concerns were brought to light by other geo-social apps such as Highlight and Glancee — which, incidentally, Facebook bought in May.

That led to a barrage of articles talking about Facebook’s new “stalking” app. Quite frankly, I think most of them were overblown.

That’s because once you left the Find Friends Nearby page, you stopped broadcasting your location, meaning that Facebook users could only find you if you were both logged into the page at the same time — as opposed to Highlight, which continuously broadcasts your location in the background. It looked like Find Friends Nearby was more about making connections with people you met in real life than it was about making random connections.

Don’t get me wrong; there are valid concerns over how Facebook might use geolocation features in the future. Most third-party geo-social apps use Facebook as a way to connect people based on interests they’ve listed. Facebook can eliminate the middle man. While a service like Highlight only has access to your public profile information, Facebook has access to everything — not to mention it’s working from a user base of more than 900 million.

It’s not hard to imagine the company eventually rolling out a more thorough geo-social app that taps into your activity on Facebook as well as your interests and biographical information. For all of Facebook’s strengths, the company’s mobile app has never offered a particularly engaging experience. Despite Facebook’s claims that it has 458 million active mobile users, concerns over its inability to monetize its mobile content was a big reason why its IPO failed to take off.

To be fair, nobody has really figured out the magic formula. Mobile ads are inherently tricky because visual real estate is scarce on smartphone screens. Still, Facebook is making progress on the monetization front and has been pretty aggressive recently about beefing up its mobile offerings. The company’s pursuit of Instagram — coupled with the development of its own photo app — show that Facebook is serious about keeping people logged in on their phones.

That’s why Find Friends Nearby seemed so promising. Sure, it needed some sprucing up and a clearly defined privacy policy. But Facebook needs to create a compelling reason for people to use its mobile products, as opposed to just offering smartphone users a clunky, dumbed-down version of its site. That means taking advantage of things that make mobile apps unique — like GPS.

In hindsight, Facebook probably should have known this would happen. By quietly releasing the app, it made the company seem like it was keeping a secret, which of course the press jumped on with hyperbolic headlines. Find Friends Nearby was a good idea — let’s hope Facebook releases something similar to it soon, this time with a primer on why the average user shouldn’t be afraid of it.

MORE: Photos: Life Inside Facebook Headquarters

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