What Facebook ‘Nearby Friends’ Means from a Playful Perspective

Well, it means that Facebook is further tapping into What Brian Sutton-Smith calls ‘the rhetoric of play as the imaginary’ – whereas playfulness is associated with creativity, discovery and serendipity. Facebook rolled out an opt-in update that allows people to track and be tracked via the app, capitalising on the potential of running into your Facebook (semi-) friends somewhere where you didn’t know they were going to be. The full list of features and its implications for privacy and future advertising can be read here.

What’s interesting to me is the discourse around it. Let’s look at a quick word cloud I’ve put together from the two TechCrunch articles dealing with the issue, the one from yesterday’s launch and the analysis linked above:

From http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/7764221/Wordle_of_BuzzFeed%27s_2_reports_on_FB%27s_Friends_Nearby_feature

From http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/7764221/Wordle_of_BuzzFeed%27s_2_reports_on_FB%27s_Friends_Nearby_feature

(click to enlarge)

The main words are ‘Friends’ and  ‘Nearby’ (being the name of the service), as well as: location, friends, proximity, people, see, share, history, someone, data. While playfulness is not mention, this are terms closely associated in Sutton-Simth to a particular way ‘play’ is “usually applied to playful improvisation of all kinds in literature and elsewhere, idealizes the imagination, flexibility and creativity of the human play worlds” (Sutton-Smith in Salen and Zimmerman, 2007, 305). Facebook is trying to capitalize on yet another instance of human tendency to play – playing with space. This need to actively seek out connections in the place you are (the “Hi I’m in town” message) or the chance encounter with a friend in a cafe is what behind this move. Facebook tries to add more and more aspects of habitual human experiences to its repertoire. Time will tell if they succeed.

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