I followed Daniel for four years on Find My Friends before he removed me from his contact list. We didn’t have a single conversation during that time, but I felt like I understood the basic blueprint of his life. Every other day, I logged into Find My Friends and scrolled through my people, checking out my parents and college roommates. When I clicked on his name and saw that he was at the university where he worked as a research assistant, I wondered what it would be like to work on campus. When I saw him in what looked like a fun restaurant (I concluded after zooming in on Apple Maps), I wondered what he would be like living in a bustling college town.
And then, one day, almost a year ago, I realized that Daniel (that’s not his real name, per his request) was no longer on my list of friends to find. He had canceled me.
This was, of course, entirely reasonable. Daniel and I are not really friends. We met in high school, when we regularly competed against each other in speaking and debating tournaments, representing different schools from different cities. Later, I became close friends with someone who was also friends with Daniel, and toward the end of college, we spent a day together with a larger group of people. Somehow, we started talking about Find My Friends and thought it would be fun to add each other. It’s been a while and for four years we’ve been busy.
This is not quite as strange as it seems. When I asked a few friends and colleagues about the weirdest contacts they had on Find My, the iPhone app that houses the option to share locations with your friends and can also help you track down missing Apple devices, their responses were equally random: a best friend’s cousin, an ex, a semi-ex, engaged friends, brother friends, former classmates, people from college they dated for the day. As Rebecca Jennings recently wrote on Vox, for many people under 30, location sharing is simply the next step into digital intimacy after following someone on Instagram, part of an endless march to the beat of surveillance capitalism.
There is one very specific utility for Find My Friends: security. We might try to sound dismissive about it, but it’s real fear (infuriating well ingrained in our society) that drives you to ask a friend to check your whereabouts while on a Bumble date. But the flip side of more laissez faire sharing the position, as Jennings and others have pointed out, is that it can itself be dangerous, used overtly or surreptitiously to stalk or manipulate people, or for other types of abuse. Many people have dozens of Find My contacts, accumulated over several years, and may not pay much attention to who is on the list. Mashables Elena Cavender wrote about someone who had 97 contacts, including the truly scary discovery of a number she hadn’t saved.
But there’s a whole other realm to Find My Friends, which is just hyper-intimate social media. Social media are more interesting when they allow you to imagine the realities of others, to experience them, to empathize with them. I enjoyed following Daniel around because it’s intoxicating to peer into lives that perhaps, in a different universe, could have been yours. Find My Friends offers a much more unfiltered peek into those lives than what we get on Instagram or Twitter; it is raw and inevitably intimate. The appeal is similar to BeReal, the app that warns users to take and share a photo at a random time of day, as a kind of counterpoint to the curation of other social networks. But many BeReal users (most of whom are Gen Z) have abandoned the essence of the app, ignoring the established BeReal time and taking and sharing their daily photo at a different (presumably more curated) time. Find My Friends, on the other hand, offers no such scope for manipulation. You cannot heal your way out of your geography in real time.
As I write this, one of my contacts (who I haven’t spoken to since college but think of often and fondly) is at the Lash Lounge, Tavern in the Square or Unibank for Savings. Another friend is at the dentist, or maybe a U-Haul dealer, or a shawarma shop that also sells chocolate. (Malls have a way of turning Find My Friends into a fun guessing game.) I used to hang out at our apartment. My parents are at happy hour at their favorite noodle restaurant.
Deleting Find My Contacts is notoriously fraught. Several people I’ve spoken to have described someone’s removal as dramatic or embarrassing. We’ve assigned these feelings to the unsubscribe process, even though they’re not, come to think of it, very reasonable: it’s more embarrassing to have virtual strangers following you around. There is no notification when you remove someone; however, the fear of dramatic breakups from Find My is so powerful that a colleague told me that she follows and still shares her location with a close friend, despite the fact that cheating has been discovered Thanks to Find My Friends it was a trigger for the end of their friendship.
I wanted to ask Daniel why he decided to remove me when he did. When I called him on the phone (a really mortifying process, because setting up the call was, as far as I knew, the first time I’d texted him), he told me his Find My list was pretty small: a a few close relatives, his roommate and a friend from college. For him, the app serves two purposes. The first is functional, like figuring out where his roommate is and if he can check his email when he gets home. (Many people use the app this way to check to see if my parents are home before calling them, and one colleague told me she uses it to schedule her showers when her grandmas show up always early.) The second purpose, Daniel said, is an expression of love to see his sister at the gym or his father on a hike, a sort of placement in the everyday life of family members who live far away. I do the same thing: I don’t talk to my mom or best friends from college every day, but seeing that they’ve gone to the office or taken a walk in the park makes me feel part of their lives in a way I otherwise wouldn’t.
Back when we’ve been following each other, Daniel didn’t use Find Mine as much as I did, but the few times he’s checked my location and found me in a city far from him, both far from where we grew up, it made him think of the different ways our lives had gone. Our backgrounds were similar enough that I could put myself in your shoes, he said. Our roads had diverged slightly which was nice.
Daniel’s decision to remove me was pretty straightforward: he was adding his new roommate, saw my name, and realized that there was no point there. He actually uses Find Mine more now because his roommates are there, but he also said he feels weirder checking his roommates location than the location of a college friend who lives across of the country (and that was, as we talked about, at Safeway). I feel the same way: the farther away someone is, the less invasive their location tracking is. I have a dozen Find My contacts, but none live in my city. The further other people’s lives get away from yours, the more fun they are to imagine.
Here are some stories from Future Tense’s recent past.
Fiction to the future
June’s Future Tense Fiction story was The Big Four versus ORWELLby Jeff Hewitt. It features a court case in which a group of four book publishers sue an artificial intelligence for copyright infringement. The AI was originally intended to help the publisher’s authors be more productive, but then it started producing its own books under a pseudonym. Just as humans are more than the sum of their individual cells, I am more than the sum of my code, argues the AI when it takes a stand. In the response essay, novelist Ken Liu explains why the real impact AI could have on the publishing industry has nothing to do with productivity.
Wish Wed posted this
The company teaches influencers how to get rich without going viral, by Daniela Dib, Rest of the World.
Future tense advises
It’s hard to make a true crime podcast in a way that really reflects the complexity of the criminal justice system and the very real and long-lasting ways it shapes people’s lives. Violation, a seven-episode series from the Marshall Project and WBUR, is a masterclass in doing just that. Host and reporter Beth Schwartzapfel follows the aftermath of the 1986 murder of 16-year-old Eric Kane. Jacob Wideman, Kane’s campmate (also 16), confessed to the murder but couldn’t explain why he did it. The podcast chronicles the struggle to come to terms with this Why, and the devastating and complicated ways it brought two families together. It is also a revealing exploration of the power attached to the probation boards which, Schwartzapfel writes, control the fate of thousands of people each year.
What will happen: TBD
On Friday’s episode of the Slates tech podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary and The Atlantic’s Ed Yong discussed the devastating shortage of cancer drugs. Last week, Lizzie spoke with Bloomberg’s Leah Nylen about the FTC’s latest lawsuit against Amazon. She also interviewed the Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang about research showing that Ozempic, the headline-making weight-loss drug, could also help people with addiction. On Sunday, Lizzie is bringing the Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler to discuss how the TSA is rolling out a controversial technology that will change the way we approach airport security.
On July 26 at 7:00 PM, join the Center for Public Integrity, USC Annenbergs Center for Health Journalism and State of Mind for an event exploring how to improve access to housing for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The event follows Amy Silverman’s report, published by the Center for Public Integrity in collaboration with State of Mind. Register today.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.
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