Apps That Tell You Your Friends' Locations Are Now A Way Of Life

We’re in an age of apps where “it is no longer the format of ‘I’m selectively sharing what I want to,’ but sharing whatever possible.”

Maddie Abuyuan / BuzzFeed News; Google Earth

It took a few weeks before Elise, 21, discovered she could look at her metadata by tapping on the three dots on her BeReal posts (a UX designer’s oversight?). She could then see how many retakes were taken, how many comments and reaction photos she got, and the precise geolocation where the photo was snapped. Once you know all this information is there, it’s fairly easy to deactivate the map. Elise hasn’t bothered. The truth is, she said she has nothing to hide.

Since the advent of geolocation-sharing tools like Snap Map and Find My Friends in the 2010s, ambiently “tracking” the location of friends and family is so normalized within certain social circles that some people report never not knowing where their contacts are.

Daniel, 26, thinks of Find My Friends as a “quality of life improvement” — and has successfully converted even his most resistant friends into users. “If I met you at a party, I would be so fine giving you my location. I see it as a badge of pride that I have nothing to hide,” he said. “I wish I had the location of every single person I’ve ever met.” His boomer-generation parents, however, “scream at him” whenever he mentions it, so horrified by his disregard for the hallowed concept of privacy.

Destini, 29, is always checking where her best friend is “not in a creepy way but as a courtesy.” If she’s at work, Destini won’t bother her with trivial texts.

Ben, 30, turns his location-sharing on and off frequently. “I should be allowed to drop in and out of it, and my friends respect that. They can joke about where I am when I go dark,” he said. The compromise is that he has to intentionally “stop sharing.” Categorizing a hangout as clandestine is one more form of preconceived socializing.

“These apps, but BeReal in particular, have a forced participation aspect,” said Andrew Selepak, PhD, a mass communications professor at the University of Florida. “It is no longer the format of ‘I’m selectively sharing what I want to,’ but sharing whatever possible.”

BeReal instituted itself as yet another platform necessary for having a social life. Designed as an “authentic,” filterless alternative to the shopping-mall catwalk of Instagram, the two-year-old French app feels closer to early ’grams of morning coffee, Mayfair filter on. Though there is a distinct difference between now and 2011. BeReal capitalizes on the knowledge that we’re on our phones all the time, and the proof is that a daily push notification with two minutes to photograph yourself and your immediate surroundings works — so well that excessive glitches don’t deter. In July, BeReal spent three days as the App Store’s No. 1 free app and is at 20 million downloads by conservative estimates.

Snapchat’s live map function debuted a few months before 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, when it “communicated the breadth of the disaster better than a slickly produced cable news broadcast ever could,” according to Wired. In 2020, developers brought Snap Map “to the forefront of the app,” and “since then, engagement has grown by more than 50 million users monthly,” a spokesperson for the company said. The $4/month premium version that launched this July makes it possible to see a “ghost trail” of where someone — or at least their phone — has traveled in the past 24 hours. It has inspired hundreds ofbeware of this new featureTikToks.

BeReal capitalizes on the knowledge that we’re on our phones all the time

But the growing user base is a young set. The other prominent social GPS tool — not including the IRL game of geocaching that had a moment in the 2010s — is Find My Friends, launched in the iPhone 4s era as a way to share one’s location with four people at a time. When it debuted, location sharing automatically expired at the end of each day, but soon after came indefinite sharing. Three years ago, Apple merged Find My Friends and Find My iPhone into one catchall: “Find My.” The streamlined ability to toggle between the whereabouts of your work laptop and your work wife could signal that within this experience, at least, people are their devices, or that they only exist when accompanying them. It’s hard to remember that the tracker is not (yet) a chip lodged in the skin but is something unattached and external, operating on a network more precarious than we think.

“People are putting their trust in an inanimate object rather than other people,” Selepak said. “I’ve witnessed it with my 18- to 22-year-old students: unchecked reliance on the technology of phones is destroying interpersonal skills. Without that practice, they struggle to ask, ‘Hey, are we still eating together later?’ instead of wondering why the person hasn’t reached out, going to check where they are and finding them already at a restaurant, and getting mad. How did you get there? We’re now assuming the phone has the perfect GPS location of the person and holds the answer to the reason why. Maybe the GPS location was off by 10 feet, and they were at a shop next door, not eating at all. ”

The “maybes” are endless. Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, a psychologist in Arizona, thinks that “[geolocation] tools can be insidious in the sense that they can start to create insecurities that aren’t really there, even in the healthiest of relationships.” But she also notes that people with an anxious attachment style are especially prone to jumping to conclusions.

“A lot of the research is indicating that an increase in obsessiveness in relationships isn’t something natural, but because the tools are there, they suck you in. Location apps actually increase dopamine because it’s excitement-seeking, it’s pleasurable to be on,” Fedrick said. “The deepest human desire is to feel accepted and important. So when you have all these dots all over the place showing how many connections you have, how many people want to share details of their life with you, that’s going to play a role in staying on it.”

Mira, a 24-year-old med student, considers Find My her most used form of social media. She has the locations of 30 people, including acquaintances she hasn’t spoken to since her undergrad semester abroad. She doubts they know that she regularly sees where they are. “I find it entertaining,” she said. “I like to wonder what people are up to. And part of it is I moved away, and it’s true that you want to see if your friends are hanging out without you.” Is that not painful? What keeps her from deleting? “Safety reasons. Making planning easier,” she said. “Though now that I’m saying it out loud it doesn’t sound like a good reason. I could just text.”

We’re now assuming the phone has the perfect GPS location of the person and holds the answer to the reason why. Maybe the GPS location was off by 10 feet

But, she said she would feel a loss. Location tracking is a specific type of experience. Snap Inc. certainly thinks so: It offers “a new way to see and explore the world… a completely personalized view of the landscape,” a spokesperson said. The map portrays a subjective rather than objective sense of space, comforting in the face of a “loneliness gap” wherein some people are far more connected than others, and the lonely and not-lonely have little overlap. I feel most like I’m in a place when a friend sends a screenshot of the street corner I’m smoking on from a simplified aerial view. It confirms that I exist, to someone.

The pandemic altered the friendships we had before, and how we make new ones now. In 1990, 33% of Americans said they had 10 or more close friends. In 2021, 13% did. An Australian study on inequalities in isolation found that “Expansive [digital] networks are unlikely to stimulate connections and reduce loneliness if they are passive (lurking) rather than active (interactive). Either way, those lacking preexisting social capital connections are likely to become lonelier after lockdown.”

Maybe young people aren’t getting up to enough shady shit. Certainly not the ones on Live360, marketed as a family safety tool that sends notifications when “Marcus has arrived safely at School” or if his sister is driving over the speed limit. But all of us who casually and indefinitely reveal our whereabouts are self-limiting to only being places and doing things that we’d be OK with people knowing. We don’t need a panopticon watcher if citizens are doing the work of surveilling each other.

“Lurking” is exactly what we do on location apps. It comes out of a sense of longing. The prevalence of geotags coincides with a dearth of public space, where people bump into one another in Jane Jacobs’s “ballet of the good city sidewalk.” Increasingly inside, we wonder where the other dancing humans are.

“What is supposed to create a sense of connection is instead creating a sense of codependency,” Fedrick said. “What’s really healthy is independence and, even further, interdependence, where a relationship takes on a sense of, ‘You do your thing, I do my thing, and we get to choose to come together and do our thing together.’ [Geolocation] technology takes away from the ability to choose.” ●


Topics in this article