friendsFacebook today announced a new feature that allows its users to share their general location with a select groups of friends. The unimaginatively-named feature, Nearby Friends, will debut on Android smartphones and the iPhone in the United States within “the coming weeks.”

Nearby Friends differs from Facebook’s existing location features in a few important ways. It only shares your general location by default, so your friends will know the neighborhood you’re visiting instead of a specific building. It also favors sharing with small groups of friends, all of whom must agree to share their own locations in order to find out where their friends are.

The feature is a clear reaction to recent criticisms of Facebook’s service. It doesn’t share details about your location without express permission, unlike most tools of its type. It also doesn’t share information with everyone you’ve ever met — it simply allows you to share with the friends you choose. It’s a vague and personal utility for a precise and impersonal network.

But if it’s any indication of Facebook’s changing approach to how its users can communicate through its platform, Nearby Friends is a promising look at the future. It’s about time for the company to notice that people don’t want to communicate with everyone they know all the time, nor do they want to share incredibly detailed information whenever they use its service.

Now if only it were easier to limit the data we share with Facebook itself. That’ll be the day.

Reactions from around the Web

The New York Times considers Nearby Friends’ other privacy protections:

Although the service stays on until you turn it off, the periodic updates on your friends’ locations are gentle reminders that you, too, are sharing your location. And when you decide to share your precise location with a specific friend, you also set a timer for when the beacon will turn off.

Users can erase their entire location history from their news feed with one command — a magic privacy wand that Facebook might consider offering for other services like check-ins or all posts from the last week.

Re/code points out that many other people-finding apps have failed:

The new product comes about two years after a wave of location-aware broadcasting apps hit the market, as we saw small startups like Highlight, Banjo and Sonar all offer similar products that encouraged offline interactions based on nearby people who used the app. (Nearby Friends was built by Andrea Vaccari and team, a group of guys who founded a similar location startup called Glancee, which Facebook bought a few years ago.) But most of those startups have foundered, failing to see any widespread use.

Vaccari thinks that’s because many of those apps didn’t see many users early on, and most of those apps were based on the idea of meeting new people. With his Facebook-built product, Vaccari thinks that it’ll work since it’s about connecting with people you already know.

The Verge notes that Nearby Friends is buried in Facebook’s main app:

Vaccari says that by only showing approximate locations, people might for the first time actually consider using a friend-finder app. Yet, Nearby Friends feels buried inside Facebook’s “More” menu, a drawer of features that doesn’t get tapped too often, according to recent research. Facebook, which liberally A / B tests new features, probably knows this, so the company surfaces Nearby Friends elsewhere in app, from the News Feed to inside the app’s buddy list window. Facebook is clearly dedicated to Nearby Friends as key component of its app, but seems conflicted about where exactly to put it. It’s a problem Facebook seems to be facing more and more as it looks to add features without adding clutter to its app.

Pando weighs in

I wrote about Facebook’s vast trove of personal information when it announced Graph Search:

You’ve gotta give Facebook credit for its relentless drive to harvest and exploit the data of its billion users. Facebook knows where you are, where you’re from, the places you Like, the people you know, and what you’re interested in — as soon as it makes its way to wearable computers it’ll probably know when you’re sleeping or awake, like a technologically twisted version of Santa Claus. The company is making some of that data easier to discover with Graph Search, a social search tool that will begin rolling out to all US-based Facebook users today.