Jennifer Mohr likes 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 junior studying information science at Temple University in Philadelphia, told me. “I never want to sing when anyone’s in my house with me.” So before she gets in the shower, she checks the location-sharing app Find My Friends on her phone to see whether her roommates are home, or whether she’s free to belt as loud as she wants.
This is admittedly a niche use for Find My Friends. But in recent years, sharing one’s location with friends over smartphones has become the norm for some social groups. Find My Friends, an Apple app, exists only on iPhones, but Google Maps, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger all have location-sharing integration too. (Swarm, a spin-off of Foursquare, lets users “check in” at certain locations, but doesn’t otherwise broadcast their locations as they move around.)
Though it may seem creepy or unnecessary to some, for others, the ability to constantly track one another is a normalized, even welcome addition to their close relationships. This can change the dynamic of friendships in ways both good and bad, both subtle and profound.
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.
There doesn’t seem to be good recent research on how widely these technologies have been adopted. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 12 percent of adult smartphone owners used “geosocial” services to share their locations with their friends, but the center hasn’t checked in on the question in the six years since. It’s reasonable to assume that as more people have gotten smartphones, and more such services have been introduced, more people have taken to using them with their friends. It’s also reasonable to assume this would be more common among young people, who tend to be more likely than older adults to adopt new technologies. Anecdotally, this certainly seems to be the case.
“A lot more of the population is willing to do this, at least with some people some of the time,” says Jason Wiese, a professor in the school of computing at the University of Utah, who did a study on location sharing in its early days, in 2011. Back then, he found that people were more willing to share their location in limited ways—say, when they were within a mile of a friend—and, perhaps obviously, that they were more willing to share with people they felt closer to.
Of course, it’s possible that such tracking could be used for less than benevolent ends. “If you are part of a group of close friends and the most dominant person is fairly controlling, or has a terrible fear of being left out, that group might evolve very different norms,” suggests Judith Donath, an adviser at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. When location sharing is a group norm, opting out without consequence becomes tricky.
“The hardest part with new technology and friendship is if you grant some access, it’s difficult to bound it or terminate it,” Jeff Hancock, a communications professor and the founder of the social-media lab at Stanford University, told me. Turning off location sharing could be a way of snubbing someone, or signaling that you’re drifting apart. But it’s also possible that someone might have a benign reason for wanting to go dark on Find My Friends that gets interpreted by friends as malicious. “If someone has a weekly therapy appointment, but they don’t want everyone to know, do they have a weekly mystery hour?” Donath asks. And how will friends interpret that?
Always-on location sharing removes the ability to tell certain kinds of what Hancock calls “butler lies”—the sorts of lies that provide a polite excuse for avoiding social interaction. Much as a butler might tell a visitor that “the master of the house is engaged at the moment,” hoi polloi serve as their own butlers when they tell their friends that, say, they already have plans and can’t make drinks that night, when in fact they have no plans but just want to unwind at home. That won’t work, however, if your friends can check an app and see your dot hovering over your address.
Hancock suspects that people will keep telling these butler lies, but they’ll just change shape. “The master of the house’s phone died”—that sort of thing. Still, Donath says, location sharing is “a form of very insidious surveillance in how it determines what the norm is, even for things like that.”
Though there’s potential for abuse, most people I spoke with weren’t too worried about any negative consequences of sharing their location, simply because they limited it to their most trusted friends, as well as family members and significant others (with the exception of Ko, who says of her list on Find My Friends, “A lot of these girls, we’re not BFFs, but I don’t mind them having my location”). Says Mohr: “I know my friends. I know they’re not checking my location every two minutes. I pick people I trust.”
Regardless of the myriad ways it can be used, location sharing is, at its core, a gesture of trust and intimacy. That isn’t to say those who don’t let their friends track them don’t trust their friends, but for some, seeing the dots of their loved ones flickering across a pocket-size map as they move through the world provides a sense of interconnectedness that is worth the loss of privacy. “I have been trying to frame a lot of my friendships in terms of family,” Jackie Luo, a 24-year-old software engineer who lives in San Francisco, told me. “I don’t really plan to have kids or get married. I’m thinking about social structures and the kinds of things that you’re supposed to get from nuclear family, and evolving other relationships to fill that gap. That’s part of it for me. I feel safer knowing that they know where I am.”
Donath compared location sharing to sending nude photos to a romantic partner—giving people information they could use to hurt you, trusting that they won’t. “Part of the bonding function of that sort of intimacy is you take the risk,” she says. “If it wasn’t risky, it wouldn’t be bonding.”
* This piece has been updated to more accurately reflect Find My Friends' notification settings.