How the Find My app became an accidental friendship fixture
As location sharing through apps like Find My has proliferated in recent years, they have become a staple in some friendships – ostensibly for safety but with the side effect of blurred lines of privacy, complicating dynamics between friends.
In July, Shay Pierre opened Apple’s location-sharing app Find My and noticed a friend at an unfamiliar apartment building in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Pierre, 23, zoomed in to inspect the building, then texted her friend its address, along with a joking “Where are you?” Her friend came clean. He had started dating somebody, and he was at her apartment. If Find My had not given it away, Pierre would not have known about the relationship until months later.
Her friend later re-labelled the apartment building in the app: “None of your business”.
As location sharing through apps like Find My has proliferated in recent years, they have become a staple in some friendships – ostensibly for safety but with the side effect of complicating dynamics between friends.
The effect is particularly noticeable among Gen Z and millennials, the first generations to come of age with the possibility of knowing where their peers are at all times.
Location sharing isn’t new. In 2011, Apple released Find My Friends. In 2013, 7 per cent of US adults said they checked into locations on social media or shared their locations with friends, according to the Pew Research Center. This year, 69 per cent of Gen Z and 77 per cent of millennials said they activated location-sharing features at least sometimes, compared with 62 per cent of US adults in general, according to the Harris Poll.
But what can be startling – and harder to quantify – is how widely younger people share their location information. Some say that they track a dozen or more friends on the app, and that those friends track them back.
These features are not limited to Find My. Dating, food delivery and ride-hailing apps often ask for access to location data. Facebook’s Messenger, Snapchat’s Snap Maps and third-party apps like the family-oriented Life360 – all available on iPhones and Android phones – offer real-time location-sharing features.
And location sharing is built into some smartphones. Starting in 2015, Find My Friends came automatically installed in iPhones. In 2019, it and Apple’s device-locating apps Find My iPhone and Find My Mac were rolled into the stand-alone Find My. Google Maps, which comes preinstalled in Android phones, has a similar location-sharing feature.
As with a check-in on Facebook or location tagging on Instagram and Twitter, users opt into location sharing on Find My. But unlike those features, Find My shares real-time location after users opt in, with the options to share for one hour, until the end of the day or indefinitely.
With Find My, “you aren’t actively choosing to do something as you reach a certain location because you’re constantly sharing your location”, said Michael Saker, a senior lecturer in digital sociology at City, University of London. As a result, “there’s an intimacy that’s intertwined with that act,” he added. “There’s a verification of being friends.”
But sharing locations can come with privacy concerns, especially if users are not aware of or do not consent to whom they share their location with, and for how long, said Eva Galperin, cybersecurity director at Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. Even if users consent at first, expectations among friends can make it more difficult to opt out, she said.
“People do this sort of indefinite data sharing because it is normalised within their immediate family or friend group,” she said. “No one has normalised pushing against that sharing.”
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Apple referred to a support page for Find My with instructions on how to start and stop sharing locations.
For Jade Calvin-Nau, 24, Find My helps her remain connected with friends. In college, the app was as much about safety as it was about socialising. She and her friends checked it to make sure everybody got home safe after a night out or to see whether they could meet up.
“Everybody knew where everybody was at all times,” she said. “There was no reason for anybody to be like, ‘Where you at?’ You could just check.”
After she graduated, Calvin-Nau’s map on Find My opened up to a constellation of contact icons scattered across the country. She shares her location with 18 people. From her apartment in Binghamton, New York, she said she typically checked the app five times a day and played “a fun little guessing game” of where everybody was.
“It’s like social media,” she said. “You clock in, you check it. I refresh it like I refresh Twitter.”
Olive Okoro, 19, uses Find My to fortify friendships. She shares her location with about a dozen friends she most trusts. Apple’s texting service, iMessage, tells users when somebody starts and stops sharing locations with them, and vice versa.
The notification about starting is “a privilege”, Okoro said. The one about stopping, though, “feels like a stab”, she said. “It’s actually like, ‘You hate my guts.’”
This summer, when Okoro fell out with two friends, her first act of digital severance was not to block their phone numbers or to unfollow them on social media, but to stop sharing her location. She didn’t want them to know whether she was at home in Dallas or at school in College Station, Texas – or where she was at all.
“When that friendship is no longer there, I immediately take my location back,” she said.
The fear of missing out, typically fostered by social media, can extend to Find My because location sharing reveals how and with whom people spend their time, said Amanda Lenhart, who studies how technology affects families at the technology research nonprofit Data & Society. That increased awareness “can be troubling and emotionally difficult”, she said.
“If you can see where your friends are and what they’re doing, you can also see when they’re gathering and you’re not there,” Lenhart said. “It gives the window that social media has into the activities of people that we like, which can include them doing things without you.”
Karine Irwin, 22, from El Paso, Texas, has had a rocky relationship with Find My. In 2019, she saw a former friend was at the home of somebody she was interested in. She drove there and wrote a note that said, “Guess who saw you”, then signed her name and left it at his front door. Soon after, Irwin, her former friend and their mutual friends fell out.
“I wouldn’t have found out if I wasn’t using it,” she said. “Now, I see it as a blessing. But at the time, it definitely didn’t feel that way.”
Aside from that incident, Irwin said, she noticed other behavioural concerns caused by Find My as pandemic restrictions eased. When the five friends she shares her location with began appearing in places that weren’t their homes, it made her anxious – not only about missing out but also about their safety. Her therapist recently suggested deleting Find My.
“She thinks I have a little bit of an obsession,” Irwin said. But, she added, she felt safe knowing where her friends were, and knowing her friends knew where she was.
“I don’t think I would be able to delete it,” she said.
By Kalley Huang © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.