Take a look at your top Facebook friends. Chances are, they're people you know in real life - friends, family, acquaintances you went to high school with. Those you don't know directly are probably friends of a friend. But that's what social networking is all about, right?

The phenomenon of social discovery is the next step, and it's changing the way we connect. Now, instead of sticking to our existing social circles, we're broadening our horizons, hooking up with strangers who have shared interests, live nearby, or just at random.

Social discovery is breaking the pattern of repetitive, mundane updates from the same people we talk to every day and bringing a little excitement back into our online lives.

How Location-Based Tools Impact Social Discovery

While social networking usually means meeting up online with people you already know in real life, location-based social discovery turns the order around - you get to know people online and may end up meeting them in real life as a result.

This can change the dynamic of online interactions. Historically, the Internet has been a worldwide community. For example, let's say you live in Florida. You head to your favorite forums or chat rooms, and you end up talking with people from New York, or Minnesota, Canada - or maybe the UK or the Netherlands.

The chances that you'll run into another Floridian are slim, and even if you do, they're from West Palm Beach and you're up in Tallahassee. You're not likely to ever meet the people you're chatting with face to face, no matter what kind of relationship you might develop online.
But with social discovery, you're interacting with people you could legitimately hang out with - or work with - someday. Once you get to know them, you can arrange to catch a movie together, or have coffee at a local café. Your "online friends" could actually become your real-life friends or colleagues. (Learn about social media's impact on our social lives in Is Social Media Making Us Socially Awkward? (Infographic).)

Facebook Enters Social Discovery with the "Find Friends Nearby" Feature

As social discovery gains ground in other networks, more traditional social media platforms are testing the waters. In June 2012, Facebook released a new app called Find Friends Nearby, which sought out other Facebook users in the area, allowing people to meet in real time.

The app is similar to other location-based services like Highlight and Sonar, which people are using to connect with others nearby. But it also highlights some of the problems with social discovery, because Facebook pulled the app nearly as fast as it was released. The company said the app was a test, but the quick retreat may also have been in response to user backlash about social discovery, which some view as creepy. After all, meeting friends in real time is great, but you don't necessarily want your online friends to always know where you are, right?

Other New Ways People are Connecting Online

Location-based social discovery has already been around for a few years. An application called WhosHere has been present in the Apple App Store since its launch in 2008. The service lets users create a personal profile and then find like-minded people who are also using the app in their immediate geographical area. In April of 2012, the app added a video chat feature so that users could interact before deciding to meet in person.

There's also Tagged, founded in 2004 and currently gaining popularity as America's "most engaging network." Tagged is similar to Facebook, but the focus has always been on social discovery rather than social networking.

Geographical location isn't the only characteristic people are using to meet new friends online. Other social discovery sites concentrate on shared interests, like:
  • Pinterest, a giant "online pin board" where users can share and connect based on their tastes in clothing, recipes and hobbies
  • Svpply allows users to keep track of products they love and find new, similar products using a process similar to Facebook's "Like" feature
  • Tumblr allows users to follow multiple similar blogs from a single personal page
  • StumbleUpon helps users discover new sites by randomly jumping through categories or content groupings

Social Discovery and Online Marketing

For online marketers, social discovery can be a great advantage. Aside from being able to connect with a wider network of potential customers, marketers can hone in on targets with far more precision and better timing. (Marketers already know a lot about us. How much? Find out in How Much Do Online Marketers Know About You?)

Here's a potential scenario. You happen to be near one of your favorite stores, and you've signed up for the store's newsletter and special offers. When you're within a few blocks of the store, you get a text - the store's having a half-price sale right now on a product line you've bought and enjoyed before. So you make a slight diversion from your plans and pop in to grab a great deal.

Beyond geographic location, social discovery helps marketers make better matches with potential customers based on core interests. This means that marketers get better leads and consumers get advertising for products and services they actually want.

Who Will Be the New Facebook?

Social discovery seems as though it's here to stay, as users continue to hook up with new people online. But if you've been down on Facebook lately and are hoping that a new network will bump it from the top slot, don't hold your breath. Traditional social media is likely to stick around for quite some time.

Social discovery sites like Tagged and Pinterest aren't competitive so much as complementary networks to traditional social media. The people you meet through social discovery can always be added to your Facebook friends, and you can maintain your social network while finding new ways to expand it.

Just when we thought social media was reducing face time with real people, social discovery is showing that it just might improve our real-life communities as much as our online ones.