Jennifer Mohr loves to sing in the shower, but she doesn’t want anyone to hear her. “I don’t sound good,” Mohr, a 20-year-old college student studying information science at Temple University in Philadelphia, told me. “I never want to sing when someone is in my house with me.” So, before entering the shower, she checks the Find My Friends location sharing app on her phone to see if her roommates are at home or if she is free to ring as loud as she wants.

This is admittedly a niche use for Find My Friends. But in recent years, sharing your location with friends via smartphones has become the norm for some social groups. Find My Friends, an Apple app, only exists on iPhones, but Google Maps, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger also have location sharing integration. (Swarm, a spin-off of Foursquare, allows users to “check in” to certain locations, but does not otherwise broadcast their locations when they are on the move.)

While this may seem scary or unnecessary to some, for others the ability to constantly follow each other is a normalized, if not welcome, addition to their close relationships. It can change the dynamics of friendships in ways that are both good and bad, both subtle and deep.

Many services now allow users to temporarily share their location – you can share for an hour on Facebook Messenger, and Google Maps lets you customize the duration. On Find My Friends, you can notify your friends when you arrive or leave a certain location, but only if you have already shared your location with them beforehand. *

This temporary sharing has obvious practical applications, as anyone who has ever tried to find a friend at a crowded music festival can attest. For example, Kelsey Ko, a 22-year-old teacher from Teach for America in Baltimore, activated Find My Friends with the group of women she went to Puerto Rico with for spring break in her sophomore year of college, in order to that they can meet again if they separate. “It was good to have as a backup,” she told me.

But over two years later, she still shares her location with them. Which brings us to the most curious type of location sharing: the ambient type, always active. Initially, the location of your friends is just another piece of information about them, another connection point, or an excuse to talk to them. You can see if they are nearby and have a happy meeting. This is a particularly common scenario in college, where people are likely to be in a small, demarcated area.

A friend’s location can also be a way to passively catch up on what they’re doing without them having to tell you. Bryan Radcliff, a 29-year-old wealth manager who lives in Wilmington, Delaware, gives the example of a road trip across the country he took with a friend last year. Their friends who stayed “thought it was exciting to find out what we were doing on this road trip. It made them feel connected to where we were going, ”he told me. Back home, location tracking can also reveal exciting news. “We might have made fun of a single friend of mine who forgot to turn it off” when he spent the night at someone else’s house, Radcliff says.

The most frequently cited benefit I heard was the sense of security that comes from someone always knowing where you are (especially given that the number of in the United States, one-person households keep increasing since 1960, according to the Census Bureau). Several people have told me that they regularly check Find My Friends or a similar app after leaving a party or bar, to make sure their friends are going home safely. Ko told me about an incident at a party during his freshman year in college: “There was a guy who was really scary to me; he insisted a lot that I come to his place. I shared my location with my friends, and they came to get me.

Radcliff was also recently able to help a friend in danger through Find My Friends. According to Radcliff, his friend was driving from sleep – he had taken a sleeping pill and got behind the wheel of a car without waking up – and had an accident. Radcliff was able to see his friend’s last location on the app, drove down the road and found him. No one was injured and the friend returned home safe and sound.

There does not appear to be any good recent research on the extent of adoption of these technologies. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 12% of adult smartphone owners used “geosocial” services to share their locations with their friends, but the center has not verified the issue in the next six years. It is reasonable to assume that as more and more people bought smartphones and such services were introduced, more and more people started using them with their friends. It is also reasonable to assume that this would be more common in young people, who tend to be more likely than seniors to adopt new technologies. For the record, this certainly seems to be the case.

“More of the population is willing to do it, at least with some people every now and then,” says Jason Wiese, a professor at the University of Utah School of Computer Science, who did a location sharing study in its early days, in 2011. Back then, it found that people were more willing to share their location in a limited way – say, when they were within a mile of ‘a friend – and, of course, maybe they were more willing to share with people they felt closer.

Of course, it is possible that such tracking could be used for non-benevolent purposes. “If you are part of a group of close friends and the most dominant person is quite controlling or has a terrible fear of being left out, that group can grow to very different standards,” suggests Judith Donath, advisor at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard. and the author of The social machine: designs for living online. When position sharing is a group norm, stepping back without consequence becomes tricky.

“The hardest part about new technology and friendship is if you grant access it’s hard to tie or end it,” Jeff Hancock, professor of communications and founder of the lab, told me. Social Media Center from Stanford University. Turning off location sharing can be a way to ignore someone or signal that you are moving away from each other. But it’s also possible that someone has a benign reason for wanting to fall into Find My Friends, which is interpreted by friends as malicious. “If someone has a weekly therapy appointment, but they don’t want everyone to know about it, does they have a weekly mystery hour?” Donath asks. And how will friends interpret this?

Permanent location sharing removes the ability to say certain types of what Hancock calls “butler lies”– the kind of lies that provide a polite excuse to avoid social interactions. Just as a butler might tell a visitor that “the master of the house is engaged for the moment,” hoi polloi serve as their own butlers when they tell their friends that, say, they already have plans and can’t. prepare drinks that evening. , when in fact they have no plans but just want to relax at home. It won’t work, however, if your friends can check out an app and see your dot hover over your address.

Hancock suspects people will keep telling those butler lies, but they will just change shape. “The master of the house’s phone is dead,” that sort of thing. Yet, says Donath, position sharing is “a very insidious form of surveillance in how it determines what the norm is, even for things like that.”

While there is a risk of abuse, most people I spoke with weren’t too worried about the negative consequences of sharing their location, just because they limited it to their most trusted friends. , as well as family and loved ones (with the exception of Ko, who says of her list on Find My Friends, “A lot of these girls, we’re not best friends, but I don’t mind. that they have my location “). Mohr says, “I know my friends. I know they don’t check my position every two minutes. I choose people I trust.

Regardless of the many ways it can be used, location sharing is, at its core, a gesture of trust and intimacy. That’s not to say that those who don’t let their friends follow them don’t trust their friends, but for some, seeing their loved ones’ dots twinkle on a pocket map as they move around the world gives a real boost. idea of ​​interconnection worth the loss of privacy. “I’ve tried to phrase a lot of my friendships in terms of family,” Jackie Luo, 24, a software engineer who lives in San Francisco told me. “I don’t really plan on having kids or getting married. I’m thinking of the social structures and the kinds of things you’re supposed to get from the nuclear family, and how other relationships evolve to fill that gap. It is part of it for me. I feel more secure knowing that they know where I am.

Donath likened location sharing to sending nude photos to a romantic partner, giving people information they could use to hurt you, knowing they won’t. “Part of the bonding function of this type of intimacy is that you take the risk,” she says. “If it wasn’t risky, it wouldn’t be a connection.”


* This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Find My Friends notification settings.

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