Facebook has spent a lot of time recently talking about anything but Facebook. Instead, the company has spent billions buying technology and developing new apps separate from the Facebook service. But on Thursday, the social network announced the first significant feature for its core product in over a year.
Called Nearby Friends, it lets users see which of their Facebook friends are in physical proximity to them.
In recent months, the social network has been focusing on other brands: the messaging service WhatsApp or the virtual reality goggle maker Oculus, two companies that Facebook bought this year for more than a combined $20 billion. There's also the news reader Paper, the first real not-Facebook app that the company built itself through an internal effort called Creative Labs.
But while the company works on building out a fleet of other properties, it also needs to keep its almost 1 billion mobile users -- and their eyeballs that advertisers covet -- coming back to its core app, especially as an onslaught of younger social networks, like Snapchat, cut into time spent on mobile phones. The company has introduced smaller things to the service like hashtags and trending topics, but the last big feature the company announced was Facebook Home, a software bundle that took over a home screen on an Android phone. Adoption of that hasn't taken off with users.
With Nearby Friends, Facebook is offering users a direct connection with each other that it has never offered before. The feature works on devices running both Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems. As always, all Facebook users won't get immediate access to the feature, as the company rolls it out in waves.
If users enable it -- found in the "more" section at the bottom right corner of the app -- they can see what city and neighborhood a friend is in, how many miles away they are, and how long ago they were there. They then have the option to message or call the friend to make plans. For example, I might be able to see that my friend David is in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood, approximately half a mile away from me, and, as of two minutes ago, he was still there.
There are, of course, restrictions. For friends to see each other, both of them have to have the feature turned on. You can also narrow down who sees you, such as only people you've put on your "close friends" list, or those you've put on your "soccer team" list. You also only see your friend's approximate location, unless you decide to share your specific location and a window of time that you'll be there. Then your exact location shows up on a map on your friend's phone. Through algorithmic magic, you can also enable push notifications to see if certain friends are nearby.
Conversely, you can also see which friends are very much not nearby. A "traveling" feature shows you friends that are on faraway trips. The idea is that you can suggest places they might go, or plan to meet up if you happen to be traveling to that place soon as well.
With a feature centered around location, privacy issues always come into play. Andrea Vacarri, Nearby Friends' 30-year-old product manager, said it was important to make the feature opt-in, and have locations only be approximate until the user says otherwise.
A feature like this is rife for advertising opportunities. The company is currently not monetizing the feature, but CNET has confirmed that Facebook is collecting data on a user's location history, so that it can one day pass the information along to advertisers.
There's also potential for expanding the service. One addition could be matchmaking features, akin to the location-based dating app Tinder. Vacarri said he's thought about such applications, but has no plans for them. "Right now we want to have a very focused experience," he said.
The genesis for the feature came two years ago, when Facebook acquired the Italian-born Vacarri's startup Glancee, a Chicago-based app that let users find people around them with similar interests. Its main competitor was Highlight, a similar app that got a lot of buzz in 2012 at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, which served as a breakout spot for Twitter and Foursquare.
Glancee eventually morphed into Nearby Friends. Vaccari talks about the app like a new father, beaming with pride but also a bit scared. Not scared of how Nearby Friends will do, but of how the demo will go. He mentions that ours is his first press interview at Facebook. "I'm a little emotional," he says. He adds, "I'm nervous," after mistyping a word.
In a way, his reaction calls back to a more vulnerable time at Facebook. The social network bought Glancee in May 2012 -- just a month after it purchased the photo-sharing site Instagram, and mere days before the company's initial public offering. At that time, the company had yet to reach a billion users. Facebook was stammering to figure out how it would make money on mobile, while aiming to appease would-be investors who became spooked by its desktop-centric business model.
Since then, Facebook has undoubtedly figured out mobile. Last quarter, it announced that 53 percent of its advertising revenue comes from mobile ads. But Facebook bought Glancee at a time when mobile was a big unknown for a company on the brink of maturity, just about to enter the public market. Now that the company has hit its mobile stride, Nearby Friends seems like something from a different time for Facebook. That's not a bad thing. As with any successful company, as it grows, it risks complacency. It doesn't hurt to be reminded of one of the times when it was at its hungriest.
Update, 3:18 p.m. PT, April 18: Adds detail about Facebook's intent to monetize Nearby Friends.