Facebook's Shopper-to-Shopper Locator, Up One Moment and Gone The Next, Clears The Way For Retail Testing

The idea of retailers using mobile geolocation data to connect shoppers and products is almost irresistible, despite the challenges of being unable to fine-tune the location nearly enough and sometimes having databases that send customers away instead of helping them find what they want.

But helping shoppers find one another—as Walmart has proposed—is a much more privacy-problematic concept.

When automated, do such tools facilitate good interactions and help customers encourage each other's purchases (such as saying whether an outfit looks sharp with those shoes or if that drillbit is the proper one for a particular fix-it job) or will it just freak shoppers out when it helps strangers approach them? In New Jersey, for example, a stranger approaching while smiling is legal justification for using deadly force.

Facebook this week gave a potentially unintended glimpse into its own geolocation connecting-consumers-with-consumers thinking when it made such a new service briefly visible during testing. But its efforts are still quite interesting.

The Facebook effort was dubbed Find Friends Nearby, and its brief appearance was seen by a reporter from Wired. "Instead of having to perform a Facebook search for your new friends' names—and going through the hassle of asking 'Is this John Smith you? What about this one?'—you could all just open up the Find Friends Nearby page and quickly add everyone. The app used your phone's GPS coordinates to determine your location, and would turn off as soon as you left the Find Friends Nearby page. It didn't do much else. Unlike beefier location-based apps, Find Friends Nearby didn't try to help you discover new people with shared interests, common ties or mutual friends," the Wired story said.

The piece also quotes a Facebook spokesperson saying: "This wasn't a formal release. This was just something that a few engineers were testing. With all tests, some get released as full products, others don't. Nothing more to say on this for now, but we'll communicate to everyone when there is something to say."

Given that the experiment seemed to be up for only a few hours, it's unlikely that there was sufficient time for people to play with the app and get upset over much of anything. Oddly enough, the most likely answer is that Facebook is being entirely truthful, that it really was a test and that Facebook never intended for the app to be public. Therefore, not much can be concluded from this particular Facebook experiment, other than that it is one possibility the company is exploring.

For retailers, any such Facebook effort has a positive effect. If it launches and fails, retailers learn about public resistance without taking a hit. And if it succeeds, Facebook's marketing might will make consumers comfortable with the idea, thereby making it a lot easier for chains to launch their own efforts with minimal resistance. Privacy is one of those areas where being a leader and trendsetter is dangerous and offers almost no rewards. Being 10th or 11th to market—with something that has this much potential to blow up—is a wonderful thing.