clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Should we know where our friends are at all times?

“I love you, now let me watch your location 24/7.”

A view of a city with several location map bubbles pointing to places within it. Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

A few months ago, sick with a cold on a Saturday morning, feeling miserable about the fact that I was stuck at home alone for the weekend, I checked Find My Friends. It’s an app that comes standard on iPhones these days, the same one that tracks your phone or laptop or Airpods in case you lose them. But instead of devices, it shows the location of your friends, or rather, their phones.

I tend to check Find My Friends when I want to see if anyone’s nearby and might be up for a spontaneous hang, or else just to see their little bubbles in some kind of bizarre exercise in virtual closeness. But that morning I noticed one of my friends’ bubbles wasn’t where it usually was. It was miles away, in a neighborhood where neither of us knew anyone. She was, I assumed, at a random person’s apartment where, we can go ahead and assume, she’d slept over the night before.

It probably says a lot about me that my first thought was, “Good for her!” and not, “Is she okay?” considering the fact that for many women, the point of location sharing with their friends is to ensure safety — that if they share their location before heading out on a solo trip or a first date, they’ll know that at least one person will know where to find them if the worst happens. But I’m more interested in the knotty social questions that mass location sharing forces us all to ask of each other and ourselves: How do we decide who to share — and not share — our location with? When does looking at your friends’ bubbles go from cute to creepy? Or, in my case, how weird is it to ask my friend for juicy details on her one-night stand?

Friends sharing their real-time locations with each other is a pretty recent facet of modern life. Though apps like Foursquare have been around since the dawn of the smartphone age, mass location sharing was only introduced around 2017, when Google rolled out location sharing on its Maps function and Snapchat launched Snap Map, allowing users to see where their contacts were at any moment. By the time Apple merged the Find My iPhone and Find My Friends apps into a single app called “Find My” in 2019, location sharing had become just another type of social networking, despite the fact that for many people, it still feels a little icky.

“As a non-location sharer, I see it as the natural conclusion of the digital-age expectation that we’re always online, always available, and have no reasonable expectation of a private, offline life,” explains Scott Nover, a tech reporter at Quartz. “We’re no longer just putting up an ‘away message,’ or occasionally ‘checking in’ somewhere on social media, but broadcasting our whereabouts at all times.”

This is pretty much the standard response I get when I ask most people above the age of, say, 30, about why they would or wouldn’t share their location with friends. Many people who remember a time before social media find it distressing that someone could be watching their little bubble on an app, judging the fact that they’re out late at night or, conversely, that they rarely leave their homes.

Young people, meanwhile, have grown up in an era where parents tracking their kids using tools like Life360 is the norm. The (arguably invasive) app is the subject of plenty of debate on Reddit, where kids lament the ability of their helicopter parents to know where they are at all times. It makes sense, then, that sharing location with friends feels mundane in comparison; many describe it as simply the next step in digital intimacy after following someone on Instagram. “It’s so, so common among basically everyone I know, just for safety reasons but also for fun,” explained 22-year-old Nicki Camberg, who shares her location with 10 friends. “Especially in a college setting, you can see when your friends are in a particular dining hall or library and go find them, in a non-creepy way.”

Louise Barkhuus, currently a visiting professor of computer science at Columbia University who has studied college students who share their location with one another, says that young people are extremely relaxed about digital privacy issues. The bigger issue they have is the social awkwardness of turning off your location after agreeing to share it with someone. “I do see people who are worried about turning off location with people, even though they don’t want to share [location] with them anymore,” she says. “They’re like, ‘No, they’re gonna get a notification, they’re going to be confronting me.’”

Hurt feelings and FOMO, the subject of the Wall Street Journal’s recent piece about location sharing among teen girls, seems to be less of an issue with adults. Instead, we fret over how to broach the subject. “It can be very awkward to bring up the topic of, ‘Hey, start sharing your location with me,’ even if you know the other person will say yes,” Camberg says. The typical conversation will likely go something like this: You’ll have plans to meet up with someone at a crowded place — a concert, a park, a beach, etc — and have an obvious immediate need to know where someone is. The tricky part, though, is gauging how long to extend the access: On Apple’s Find My Friends, you can choose to either share your current location for one hour, until the end of the day, or to share indefinitely. “If the person only shares their location with you for [an hour], it’s definitely, like, a signal. You’re like, “Oh, are we not good enough friends for you to permanently share your location with me?’” Camberg says she gets around the awkwardness by sharing her location permanently with people to avoid that conversation, “and then maybe turn it off a few days later when we aren’t together.”

That awkwardness can still come back around eventually. Nadia (not her real name), a 24-year-old in Los Angeles, realized one of her friends stopped sharing her location after she noticed on Instagram that the friend, who lived in New York, was in Southern California. When she went to check how close she was, she realized she no longer had access to her location. Worse, she learned said friend had asked a mutual acquaintance to grab dinner in LA, but just with the two of them. “I was like, ‘This is so weird. I would find it so much less rude if you texted me upfront to say, ‘Hey, I’m in LA, but it’s a super short trip so I don’t have time to catch up.’ Like, I’m busy too, I have my own life.”

When sharing your location with a friend, it’s important to remember you’re sharing your location with a human being, and human beings don’t always have good intentions or end up being the people you thought they were. Particularly in intimate relationships, location sharing comes with its own set of norms and anxieties, for obvious reasons. Author Ella Dawson recalls a toxic relationship in which her then-boyfriend used location sharing as a way to monitor her whereabouts. “It took me years to find out that he actually used location sharing to avoid me overlapping with his live-in girlfriend, whom he told me he’d broken up with months prior to us meeting. He insisted she use location sharing for the same reason,” she says.

Katina Michael, a professor at Arizona State University who has studied location-based technologies in the private and academic spheres for more than 25 years, describes the shift to mass location sharing as one of the central tenets of uberveillance, the academic term used to mark human beings’, companies’, and governments’ widespread electronic surveillance of other people. “It’s the most powerful thing, knowing where someone is,” she says. “It’s sacred knowledge. It’s God knowledge, when you think about it.” (Perhaps this is part of the enjoyment of staring at our friends’ bubbles: We get to play God to our virtual Sim friends.)

Michael finds the casualness with which people share locations with their friends worrisome. She cites the Tempe, Arizona, man who, in 2019, was arrested for posing as a teenage girl on Snapchat to find the locations of underage girls and then watching them in their homes. (Another man was arrested for the same thing in Florida in 2022.) In France, one man tracked his girlfriend on Snap Map and ended up stabbing the man she was with. Of course, location services have also helped solve innumerable crimes, which is why so many families and friends rely on it for peace of mind. In 2019, one woman credited location sharing with saving her life after she went into anaphylactic shock and her roommate was able to find her and call an ambulance.

If location sharing is the new normal, Michael hopes to bring about changes to the ways location tracking apps breach our privacy. First and foremost, she says that people should have the right to view their own location data and delete it if they wish. She was also the working group chair of a new code of age-appropriate standards for young people, which includes guidelines for terms of service agreements written in plain, simple language. “If even lawyers can’t figure out what terms and conditions are talking about, what’s the average adult to do?” she says, never mind the teens and kids who use these features.

To be fair, the government and the companies that have direct access to your personal data (and the many more that can buy it) already know where you are. The idea that sharing your location with a friend is some kind of unprecedented breach of trust is to be willingly blind to the fact that these services are already being used — by people you don’t know and will never meet — whether you want them to be or not. “For the vast majority of people and the vast majority of circumstances, the benefits they get from sharing their whereabouts way exceed the risks that might be out there,” one computer security strategist told the New York Times in 2017. Barkhuus, for her part, believes that people distrusting location sharing will be akin to people refusing to buy cellphones in the ’90s and early 2000s. “I don’t think it’s going to go away. I think it’s only going to be more common,” she explains. As for the cultural changes mass location sharing might bring, she says, “We’re going to have to be a little more honest with each other.”

As for my friend’s location on that Saturday morning, I never brought it up. I figured it would be best to keep at least the illusion of privacy between us — even if it didn’t actually exist.

This column was first published in the Vox Culture newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.