Yesterday, Ingrid Lunden at TechCrunch broke news about Facebook’s fancy new “Find Friends Nearby” feature. First demonstrated at a low-key hackathon, the feature allows users to add people nearby who are also logged into Facebook as friends.
Lunden noted that the development comes less than two months since Facebook acquired people-discovery app Glancee. ”It is not clear if Friendshake [as it was initially called] has been created out of that acquisition, or if it has been developed along an altogether different thread,” Lunden wrote.
I’ve got a different theory: Facebook straight-up copied Weixin, Tencent’s popular mobile communications app, which has 100 million users in China. Except Facebook hasn’t done as good a job.
Weixin – the English-language version of which is called WeChat – lets you find other people nearby simply by shaking your phone. As long as somebody somewhere is shaking their phone at the same time, you can even connect over large distances.
Lunden says that the main purpose of Find Friends Nearby appears to be to quickly “friend” people you meet at events. To do that, however, the relevant parties all need to be logged into the new feature, and, going by the screenshots, it looks like you have to add each friend by tapping your screen. With Weixin, the same process is achieved with a simple shake.
The feature, Lunden notes, also has some cross over with Highlight, in that helps you connect with friends of friends, or people who have similar interests. But Weixin is all over that, too, with its Look Around feature.
Now, just in case anyone at Tencent is about to get all high-and-mighty about this, I should point out that Weixin itself is by no means the spawn of unadulterated independent thinking. Indeed, it is a rip-off of many popular Western mobile social networking apps, all rolled into one. It includes features that are remarkably similar to: Bump, HeyTell, Path, Google+, and GroupMe.
To some people that mess of features might sound like a nightmare. To 100 million Chinese, however, it’s a god-send. The HeyTell-like voice-messaging service in particular is compelling, and especially beloved by older people. I was recently talking to a Chinese friend who was amazed to find on a recent trip to a tourist area that grandparents were using, and loving, the app. That development is especially significant in China, where almost 60 percent of Internet users are younger than 30.
The Chinese get a lot of bad press, much of it justified, for being copycats. What often goes unrecognized is the innovation they later bring to a product after their American counterparts have turned their backs.
[Update: It seems Facebook has now pulled its Find Friends Nearby feature, which is says it had been "testing".]