Many services now allow people to share their location temporarily—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 at or leave a certain place—but only if you’ve already shared your location with them beforehand. *
This temporary sharing has obvious practical applications, as anyone who’s ever tried to find a friend at a crowded music festival can attest. For instance, Kelsey Ko, a 22-year-old teacher with Teach for America in Baltimore, turned on Find My Friends with the group of women she went to Puerto Rico with for spring break in her sophomore year of college, so that they could find one another if they got separated. “It was nice to have as a backup,” she told me.
But more than two years later, she’s still sharing her location with them. Which brings us to the more curious kind of location sharing: the ambient, always-on kind. At baseline, your friends’ location is just another piece of information about them, another point of connection, or an excuse to talk to them. You can see whether they happen to be nearby, and have a happy chance meeting. This is a particularly common scenario in college, where people are likely to be within a small, bounded area.
A friend’s location can also be a way of passively catching up on what they’re up to without them having to tell you. Bryan Radcliff, a 29-year-old wealth manager who lives in Wilmington, Delaware, gives the example of a cross-country road trip he took with a friend last year. Their friends who stayed behind “thought it was exciting to find out what we were getting up to 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 were able to ridicule one of my single friends who forgot to turn it off” when he spent the night at someone else’s house, Radcliff says.
The most commonly cited benefit that I heard was the sense of safety that comes from having someone always know where you are (notable especially given the fact that the number of single-person households in the United States has been steadily rising since 1960, according to the Census Bureau). Several people told me they regularly checked Find My Friends or a similar app after leaving a party or a bar, to make sure their friends got home safely. Ko told me about an incident at a party her freshman year of college: “There was a guy who was being really creepy toward me; he was very insistent on me coming to his house. I shared my location with my friends, and they came and got me.”
Radcliff was also recently able to help a friend in danger thanks to Find My Friends. According to Radcliff, his friend was sleep-driving—he had taken a sleep aid and gotten behind the wheel of a car without waking up—and got into an accident. Radcliff was able to see his friend’s last location on the app, went to the road, and found him. No one was hurt, and the friend got home safely.