Social networks first persuaded millions of us to start cataloging our friends, family members and high school classmates. The networks got us to post photos, tweet our every thought and tend our virtual farms. Now the next wave wants to cross over into the real world and introduce us to nearby strangers with common interests--and perhaps a desire to make a new friend.
There are at least 11 new smart-phone apps pushing this concept, which techies call ambient social networking. Silicon Valley is rushing to fund these "people discovery" start-ups, and everybody at South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive--the annual nerdfest in Austin that famously gave Twitter its big break in 2007--seemed to be tinkering with one of them: Highlight, an eight-week-old iPhone app, is designed to reveal real-life connections you didn't know you had, as well as alert you to the presence of friends you might otherwise miss. Co-founder Paul Davison calls it a "sixth sense."
Highlight, which has yet to make public how many people are using the app, works by rummaging through your Facebook account to see whom you know and what topics you like. Then it uses your iPhone's GPS to inform you when, say, a fellow conference attendee who's a former co-worker's buddy is in your immediate vicinity or when a good-looking patron who loves the same bands you do sits down at the other end of the bar.
It's a big shift for the tech industry. Unlike Foursquare--2009's SXSW darling, which now has 15 million members sharing their locations by "checking in" so they can earn discounts and other rewards--Highlight monitors your whereabouts continuously and automatically shares them with fellow members both in and outside your existing circle of friends. That introduces new privacy concerns and strikes some critics as enabling a form of high-tech stalking.
In its current form, Highlight is a rough draft of a powerful idea. Some problems are minor: Highlight has an odd habit of telling you who's nearby even when you're passing in a moving vehicle. It also drains your phone's battery as it constantly sends location data back to its servers, a problem the company says it is addressing.
But getting Highlight's algorithm to highlight people you actually want to meet is the biggest challenge of all. "We're just scratching the surface," says Davison. "If we both went to the same high school, it's more interesting if the school is 4,000 miles away than if it's two miles away." At SXSW, I wasn't moved to track down any of the individuals Highlight identified as people of interest. I did, however, keep striking up rewarding conversations with folks I encountered in hotel lobbies and at parties, no app required. Serendipity in its natural form is a wonderful thing--and manufacturing it won't be easy.