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Meet Your New Mobile Friends

For all their talk of a more connected world, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are useless when it comes to forging new real-world relationships.Are social discovery apps such as Highlight the new Facebook?

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Facebook is great for finding out who your ex is dating or what your friends from high school are up to. But what about when you want to make new friends or meet a new future ex? Sure, you could chat up a bunch of strangers in the grocery store line, but how do you know those people aren't serial killers? Enter social discovery apps.

Social discovery apps (which have been proliferating since this year's SXSW tech expo when Highlight was heralded as the next big thing in social media) are mobile applications that use GPS and your existing social media profiles to help you meet like-minded people in the real world.

This sounds great in theory. Anyone who's ever gone to a bar alone and spent the entire time staring quietly into the middle distance knows that it's hard to meet new people, and so far traditional social networks (geared at platonic interactions, at least) haven't been much help. For all their talk of a more connected world, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are often useless in terms of facilitating real-world relationships.

Find My Friends

Unsurprisingly, Facebook wants in on the action. In May, the social network acquired ambient location app, Glancee. The app was shutdown immediately after the acquisition and the company's three employees joined the Facebook team, suggesting that we would soon see a social discovery function on Facebook. Lo and behold, less than two months later, Facebook began quietly testing "Find Friends Nearby," a mobile feature that allowed users to Facebook friend other Facebookers in their vicinity.

Although "Find My Friends" was disabled as soon as the tech blogs picked up on it, the existence of such a feature strongly suggests that it's only a matter of time before Facebook officially integrates social discovery. This is great news for users who want all their social in one place, but obviously not such good news for Highlight, et al., who may soon find themselves without any friends to find.

But one way or another, social discovery is coming, which is, well, great. As anyone who's ever gone to a bar alone and spent the whole time staring forlornly into the middle distance knows - it's hard to meet new people, and traditional social networks don't help. For all their talk of a more connected world, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., are mainly only useful for keeping up with people you already know or keeping up with people you'll never meet. So, in theory a social network that actually helps you be social is a pretty intriguing idea.

Weak Ties

It's worth pointing out up front that the current crop of social discovery apps — Banjo, Badoo, Kismet, Highlight, Sonar — have a few major flaws. They're based entirely on the weak ties of social media interactions. They rely on information from users' Facebook profiles to determine who in their immediate vicinity is connected to them based on mutual friends or shared interests. But concepts such as "Like" and "Friend" mean different things on Facebook than they do in real life. Let's remember that capital L liking is the only option for one-click Facebook interaction, making it a fairly inaccurate way of measuring actual enjoyment. People Like things because they like them, but they also Like things because they don't like them, and sometimes they Like things to get a free Gillette razor.

Facebook "friendships" are similarly flawed. The barrier for entry into a Facebook friendship is so low — click, click, done — that many of these people are only your friends in the sense that Facebook says they are, and not in the sense that you talk to them or share intimate thoughts with them or enjoy their company. I have Facebook friends who I couldn't even identify in a lineup, so it's unlikely that I would want to approach their Facebook friends.

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The second problem has to do with human nature: Talking to strangers is scary, and wanting someone to follow you on Twitter doesn't mean you want them to follow you on the street.

While there are times when a notification that an acquaintance is nearby is welcome, other times it's just plain creepy. Getting a message that a stranger is "nearby" while you're walking home at night is less than comforting no matter how many Facebook friends you have in common.

Context Insensitive

Another problem with many of the social discovery offerings is that they can't tell the difference between a time when you might want to meet someone (party, conference, concert) and a time when you would rather not (all other times). Unlike foursquare, which gives users the choice to check in at every specific location, social discovery apps are always on once they are activated. You're passively checking in everywhere, not selecting the places where you'd actually like to meet someone. This could actually keep people from approaching those who pop up on the app because it's impossible to tell when someone's in the mood to be "socially discovered."

In the world envisioned by these apps developers, people are infinitely social, intrepid and eager to expand their existing social network. In reality, even if a fellow labradoodle enthusiast is a couple park benches away from you, you might prefer to wait a few extra minutes and text a friend to meet up or eat your sandwich in peace. Of course, it could be that all this Facebook Liking is beside the point. The most important thing the people who embrace this technology have in common is the fact that they signed up at all.

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How to Build a Better Social Discovery App

1. Forget the Facebook Likes. Instead of only alerting users when people with vaguely similar interests are nearby, the ideal social discovery app would tell you everyone in your immediate vicinity and whether or not you are connected to them.

2. Follow Foursquare's lead. Allow people to check in at locations where they are interested in being approached.

3. Let users decide which connections matter to them. Some people only want to be visible to people with whom they share Facebook friends, others want to know when other Twilight fans are in the building.

4. Get rid of the competition. Facebook would be a lot less useful if half of your friends were on MySpace. The same goes for social discovery apps. There can only be one, and everyone needs to be on it.

5. Get over the idea that meeting new people is ever going to be painless. If you want to make a friend, an app can only take you so far; at some point, you just have to swallow your pride and say something crazy like, "Hi."

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of Say Magazine.

Ramona Emerson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Wired, The Huffington Post, O the Oprah Magazine, The Daily, and The San Francisco Appeal. Follow her on Twitter @ramonarae.

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