June 27, 2012 at 11:54 AM ET
By Leslie Meredith and Seán Captain
Facebook released and then pulled a new feature, Find Friends Nearby, that let Facebook users see other members who were — you got it — nearby.
Facebook is constantly pushing the envelope of social media, blurring the lines between your online world and the one at your feet. Facebook was the first social network to persuade people to use their real identities. Before Facebook, we were all a mishmash of screen names and avatars. But sometimes, as with Find Friends Nearby, Facebook gets too personal for its users.
Last month, Airtime, a video chat app a la Chatroulette that paired strangers, including those nearby, launched via a big press event in New York City. Even Mark Zuckerberg was caught chatting on his webcam. But it was a separate app that you could decide whether or not to use. Most chose not to. Currently, Airtime is buried near the bottom of Facebook's Timeline Apps listings by popularity and by user rating.
Find Friends Nearby took stranger pairings out of the relative safety of your home and into the streets. In the process, it proved what everyone already knows about such stranger-finding apps: they creep people out. Look no further than the outrage last April over Girls Around Me, a short-lived app that allowed men to find women who had checked in on location-based app FourSquare — nearly anywhere in a city. Then there was the recent tragedy of flirting app Skout, which adult men abused to find and sexually assault teenage girls.
Given the history, why did Facebook let its people-finding feature loose with no warning?
Lenny Rachitsky, creator of the first location-based girl- (and guy-) finding service, Assisted Serendipity, theorized that Find Friends Nearby was the project of some loose cannons at Facebook. "It looks like it was simply a test that some engineers wanted run in the wild, but the negative press got the attention of the higher ups at Facebook," Rachitsky wrote in an email to TechNewsDaily.
Facebook nearly confirmed that in a statement: "This wasn’t a formal release — this was something that a few engineers were testing. With all tests, some get released as full products, others don’t." However, while it might be inconceivable for a company of Facebook's size to release new and potentially controversial features without warning, it's part of its corporate philosophy, or as it's known at Facebook, the hacker way.
"In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done," Zuckerberg said in May on the eve of the company's public offering. "Like most things, it can be used for good or bad."
Facebook provokes enough anxiety when it releases well-designed and tested features that affect user privacy, such as its new global email addresses that bumped users' "outside" email addresses off their profiles. But experimenting with a feature that puts people at physical risk is troubling.
In Facebook's defense, the feature could be used only when a single page was open within Facebook's mobile app. The user saw only others who also had the page open. However, curious users, especially kids, could find themselves in situations that they're simply not equipped to handle.
Facebook's mission is to "give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." However, it should be clear by now: People want to connect with their friends, not strangers.
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