Facebook ventures into social discovery with Find Friends Nearby

The feature is designed to connect users to new social contacts based on physical proximity

Facebook is testing a mobile-only feature, called Find Friends Nearby, that allows users to connect with new social contacts based on who is nearby and using a browser.

The feature allows Facebook users to find and "friend" others nearby who also have the website open. It is reportedly available for some users in the Apps section of the main mobile menu and through a browser at fb.com/ffn. The IDG News Service was not able to immediately access the feature.

If two people meet at an event and want to share contact information, using Find Friends Nearby is designed to eliminate the need for them to type in each other's names and weed through a list of possible results, which can be long for those with common names.

News of the feature leaked from the San Francisco AngelHack event this weekend and was publicized in a blog post on Tech Crunch.

Facebook downplayed the feature when asked for comment.

"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. Nothing more to say on this for now," a Facebook spokeswoman said in an email.

Still, the location-based feature marks a foray into the new territory of social discovery, or finding new friends, for the social network, which acquired the social discovery app Glancee in May.

"This is Facebook capitalizing on the popularity of applications like Sonar, Highlight and others that provide a similar social discovery service to bring some value from location based services," Chris Silva, an analyst with Altimeter Group, said in an email.

But the move didn't immediately trigger concern among industry players that Facebook would crush existing apps.

"Bringing more attention to location-based services and technology is a great thing," Damien Patton, the CEO of Banjo, said in an email. But he suggested Facebook had more work to do.

"Just like with mobile, Facebook will see location needing to become a core competency of their business," Patton said.

Gartner analyst Annette Zimmermann also said that Find Friends Nearby wouldn't be enough to establish Facebook as a player in social discovery.

"The fact that Facebook is moving into the location-based services space in general is natural and inevitable, but they have to be more serious in order to get it to work and make it a success. I think they are taking relatively small steps at a time." Zimmermann said.

As with other location-based features, Find Friends Nearby comes with some risks to users' privacy.

Users will have to remember that once the feature is open, "strangers who may be using the page nearby could find you as well," Zimmermann said. Some users will be put off by the prospect, but others won't, she said.

But analyst Silva took a darker view.

"I've yet to see a really strong use case for users to participate in random discovery and expose themselves, via privacy settings, to the great unknown of other users simply to grow their social graph," Silva said.

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.

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