The Most Useful App Is Find My Friends

In defense of location sharing, the best way to make life into a movie

A hand holding a phone with a map open
Skaman306 / Getty

Updated at 11:00 a.m. ET on November 20, 2019.

You simply can’t get around New York City without GPS. I know this is not actually true, because generations of people did it, but it is true for me: I bought my first smartphone in 2014, my first summer in the city, solely for Google Maps. And a year ago, I persuaded my friends to share their locations with me “indefinitely” in Apple’s Find My Friends app.

It’s not that I fear for my friends’ safety in any real way. (We’ve all been to college, which is statistically more dangerous for a woman than anything we’re doing now.) That isn’t why I asked them to give me access to their location at all hours of the day and night, forever. What I wanted most was the sense of shared plot, by way of literal plotting.

The idea was that I could wake up and watch them. When we made dinner plans, I could catch them exactly as they rounded the corner to the restaurant. Sitting on my stoop, waiting for one of them to bring over a bottle of wine, I could track her little blue bubble as it lurched down my block. It created friendship seamless, like in the movies: We could meet up easily and at any time, and our story lines were all spliced together into one coherent drama. Bored or lonely or sad or anxious, I could open the app and click down the list—she’s at work; she’s at the movies; she’s at the worst bar in Brooklyn, why is she there? All my people, scattered around the city, doing their things, living their lives, then returning to places where I knew they were okay. “Where the fuck am I?” my friend Katie texted the group chat one day at 3 a.m., alongside a photo of dozens of pairs of high-end sneakers, arranged in neat rows on the floor of a strange apartment. A rhetorical question, because of course we all knew exactly where she was.

Not everyone feels so swoony about Find My Friends. Even Cult of Mac, a near-fetishistic daily news blog about Apple products (tagline: “Tech and culture through an Apple lens”), called the app both “useful” and “evil” upon its release.

Two years ago, I co-hosted an episode of a podcast with my friend Ashley Carman (whose location I can see at all times), in which we asked our co-workers why they’d made the choice to use location-sharing apps. Before he would answer the question, The Verge’s policy editor, Russell Brandom, told us, “I guess I would just start from the premise that you believe you’re making these choices from your own free will, when in fact you’re operating in a system that’s been created by corporations to extract information out of you that can be used to target advertising.” (That is how Russell talks, and of course he is right.)

I understand that I should be worried about being watched all the time in the abstract. I’m not unconcerned about surveillance, but I do think it’s unlikely that Find My Friends has anything to do with the bad stuff, which I can’t do anything about. It’s not like I can track anyone who doesn’t consent to being tracked. Evil, how?

The women Ashley and I spoke with had specific reasons to location share: Dropping a pin so a friend can find her on the beach. Checking to see that a person who isn’t returning texts has simply made it home safely and passed out. Feeling an extra pair of eyes on her while she’s on a first date with a stranger. Making sure someone is not lying when they announce that they’re “five minutes away!” Some of these cases are about safety, but all are about accepting accountability. If you’re important to me, you should be able to find me. I trust you, so please watch me all the time!

In her 1993 book, Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge, the Oxford University geographer Gillian Rose wrote that the entire discipline has been dominated by men, “perhaps more so than any other human science.” From 1921 to 1971, she pointed out, 2.6 percent of papers published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers were written by women. Not until 1984 was the first book about geography and gender published; “it is now out of print,” Rose deadpanned.

Find My Friends was announced at Apple’s annual hardware event in October 2011, presented by then-SVP of iOS software Scott Forstall. The technology itself was not particularly innovative: At the time, Google was already offering a similar app called Latitude (launched in 2009, based on a service created by the NYU students Dennis Crowley and Alex Reinert in 2000 and acquired by Google in 2005). There was also Glympse, which offered location services for delivery businesses (founded by Bryan Trussel in 2008), and Life360, explicitly for tracking your children and spouse (founded by Chris Hulls the same year).

The technology that formed the basis of Find My Friends—GPS—was championed by men. In a 1997 brochure on the wonders of GPS, published by the National Academy of Sciences, the authors write: “GPS makes it possible to answer the simple question Where am I? almost instantaneously and with breathtaking precision.” Inspired by Sputnik, the first satellite navigation system was invented by the U.S. Navy during the Cold War, and refined throughout the ’70s by the Department of Defense. In 1983, Ronald Reagan announced that commercial aircraft would be allowed to use the expanded 24-satellite Navigation System With Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR) upon its completion, which came 10 years later. (The primary engineers, Bradford Parkinson and Ivan Getting, were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004. Gladys West, a black woman who was central to the Navy’s GPS development efforts for 20 years, was not publicly credited until after her retirement.)

By the early ’90s, GPS was in wide use, for both military and civilian purposes. Navigation systems from companies like Magellan and Garmin became standard in cars by the end of the decade, and Qualcomm debuted a combination GPS and cell-signal technology to make the tracking of phones extremely accurate in 2002.

GPS calculates a person or thing’s position on the planet using a combination of satellite readings and an extraordinarily precise clock. It would not work at all without this clock, which measures time based on the internal vibration of atoms and was first proposed by the physicist I. I. Rabi in 1944, then further developed by his student Norman Ramsey in 1949. (They both won Nobel Prizes.) The first functioning atomic clock was enormous, built by Louis Essen and John V. L. Parry at the National Physical Laboratory in 1955; the first functioning and practical atomic clock was built a year later, by the nuclear physicist Jerrold Zacharias at MIT. He named it the Atomichron, and the atomic clocks used for today’s GPS are its direct descendants.

Anyway, GPS is male. Surveillance—given who is still in power in much of the world, including here—is male. (“Geography is masculinist,” as Rose wrote.)

One of the more famous contributions to feminist geography is the media scholar Lisa Parks’s 2001 paper “Plotting the Personal: Global Positioning Satellites and Interactive Media,” originally published in the journal Cultural Geographies. Parks’s introductory history of GPS is notably less gushing than the one written by the NAS. She points out that it was originally described by its inventors as a “surgical strike” weapon, and that it became a multibillion-dollar industry because of the Clinton administration’s deregulation of satellite industries. The purpose of the paper is to reimagine GPS “not as a technology of military strategy, but rather as a technology of the self,” and Parks argues that GPS qualifies as an interactive medium. Though being tracked is passive, moving around in space is active—the software doesn’t have any say in where you go, and in fact you’re in control of the map it produces.

When you allow yourself to be tracked by GPS, you create what Parks calls your “trajective self:” “Although represented as a series of lines and dots, the body’s movement transforms the map from an omniscient view of territory into an individualized expression.”

Gillian Rose wrote her big book about women and geography more than 25 years ago, but she’s still thinking about these things. There are valid criticisms around the big tech companies harvesting our personal data, and the governments creating smart cities that function to surveil us, she told me in a phone call. “But there’s also a hero critic voice in that,” she said. “We’re going to talk about the big stuff and we’re going to be really angry. And actually a lot of the more everyday ways people are using technology, I think, are getting lost in this conversation.”

She cites an app in which women leave reviews of businesses based on how friendly they are to breastfeeding, as an example of creative “gifting” on top of the software and operating systems that we know are in some ways manipulative and irretractable. “There’s a kind of sharing network of information which a lot of these platforms are allowing that becomes a bit more complicated than saying we’re being exploited. That’s not to say that that makes Facebook’s model better or anything. We’re just saying what else is going on.” For example, because Google has done such a poor job keeping “crisis pregnancy centers” out of search results for abortion, Planned Parenthood recently released its own tool that puts a layer of information on top of a Google map, providing a complete list of real abortion clinics along with wait times, state laws, and other relevant context.

In 2017, New York magazine published an interactive map of the city overlaid with nearly 500 pins, each tied to a user-submitted story about a romance or a breakup or a missed connection in a public place. The geographic data are Google’s property, as noted at the bottom of the page, but the end result looks nothing like Google Maps: The stories go back decades, even though the map they’re layered on top of is current. The page is incredibly glitchy, but you can click around on it and find places where your personal history of New York overlaps with some stranger’s. (There’s a 2016 breakup at Kellogg’s Diner on there, which precedes the Kellogg’s Diner breakup in the final season of Girls by a year.)

“When used as a technology of self-reflection, GPS can become interactive in the most productive sense,” Parks wrote in 2001. “It invites the user to see herself as a subject-in-motion, as a reader and writer, reflexively inscribing personal trajectories onto the text of the social and the world of the everyday.”

This summer, I was on a bad date in Williamsburg. Tamar was on a bad date, also in Williamsburg. She texted that she was sitting on a planter outside the second-worst bar in all of New York, and I said something like, Yeah I see that, and she asked why I was in an apartment building near that horrible mural, the one in every movie about Brooklyn. It was the middle of the night, I was so tired and so sad, and it was Tamar who realized that we could pretty easily stop what we were doing and find each other in real life. Zooming in on her bubble, squinting to see which side of the street I should run down, the screen didn’t look anything like a map of New York, but I ended up in the right spot.