“Nearby Friends” and other Marauder’s Maps

In 2014, Facebook launched an app that, miserable failure though it seems to have been in terms of uptake, yet contained an interesting and problematic germ of an idea for ambient displays. The app, “Nearby Friends,” tracks the positions of people listed as a user’s “friends” on Facebook and notifies the owner of the app when a friend enters into a certain geographic range. Additionally, the app, when one clicks through a menu or two, is able to tell the owner the distance of other users from the owner’s position (in miles). And though I don’t believe you could watch friends’ progress on a map in real time, the app indeed provided the app’s owner with notifications of the proximity of other users near and far.

In the language of Pousman and Stasko’s “A Taxonomy of Ambient Information Systems,” Nearby Friends almost comprises an “Information Monitor Display” insofar as it is a “peripheral part of a user’s computer desktop” (an app that can be minimized), that “display[s] multiple sources of information,” and is “capable of notifying users in multiple ways about changes in the source data, including … interrupting, and even demanding user attention when necessary”).

What Nearby Friends lacks is a way of affecting “subtle awareness”: what if one were to develop a TUI that changed according to the proximity of friends and acquaintances? This seems to me among the most primal of “nuggets” of data a person can seek–a list of which might otherwise include weather conditions, information on food scarcity, sources of shelter, and, as in the case of Nearby Friends, the position of allies. Could a system be made that offers a user constant, slow, and subconscious data on the proximity of those around them?



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