We used to leave it to fate. You'd bump into a stranger somewhere, start up a conversation, and only then discover shared interests in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Asian cuisine, thermonuclear physics. As you talked more, you discovered you knew some of the same people. Before long you were doing business together or maybe even kindling a romance.
Is nothing left to chance in the age of social media? One of the most-buzzed-about topics at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin last week surrounded Highlight, a geolocation-based, or ambient, social app that can surface information about the people who happen to be near you in real time.
The free iOS app was recently created by San Francisco start-up Math Camp and is the kind of social tool that the tech-savvy hipsters who frequent the festival would embrace. Making serendipitous connections is part of SXSW's appeal.
Highlight is part of an emerging (if unproven) trend: Several somewhat similar location-based social apps have appeared recently, with names such as Banjo, Glancee, Kismet and Sonar.
Some of those willing to try Highlight at SXSW gave up on the app just as fast. GPS and other location technologies can have a deleterious impact on a phone's battery life.
I stuck with Highlight at SXSW and in and around New York City. Those are the kinds of areas — along with Silicon Valley— where you'd expect Highlight to have the best chance of gaining traction. Catching on elsewhere could be a challenge, although Highlight CEO Paul Davison expects the app to help people make connections in small towns and airports.
As you employ the app, you get notifications of Highlight users within a football field or so of your location. You can check out their profile photos, see if you have mutual friends and common interests, and view a tiny map that shows their recent location. You tap a person's entry for profile details. The closer a person is, and the more interests, friends or history you have in common, the more likely you'll be notified of their presence. But it's possible that you'll be made aware of someone with whom you don't share friends or interests, simply because Highlight finds them interesting.
If someone catches your eye, you can send them a direct message, or choose to "highlight" them. You are notified if someone highlights you and whenever a Facebook friend joins Highlight.
I'm equally intrigued by Highlight and wigged out by the concept — a typical reaction, I suspect. Davison is mindful of privacy and says he wants to make the app more welcoming for women and married people.
To use Highlight on your iPhone — no Android version yet — you must log into Facebook. (To spread the word, Highlight invites you to invite your Facebook friends.) The company says using Facebook helps ensure people are who they say they are and also lets you see the friends users have in common.
You can make your profile visible to everyone on Highlight or to friends of friends only. Within the app's settings, you can also write a blurb that lets people know why you're there (for example, "I help start-ups"). Most of the people who showed up in my Highlight feed skipped that part.
I can see Highlight being useful at a concert, sporting event or at the various conferences I attend. On the street, I don't know. I certainly don't want everyone to know where I am all the time.
As a privacy measure, you can pause Highlight, which makes you invisible and simultaneously turns off location services (saving the battery). You still receive notifications, and the next time you launch the app, you're automatically unpaused. If I had my druthers, unpausing would be up to the user. To completely shut Highlight off, you'd have to remove it from your phone.
In Manhattan I sent a note to Katie Welch, a vice president at Bliss spa, who happened to be nearby. I didn't know Katie, but we had six mutual friends, and I was curious what she thought of Highlight. "It's been interesting to see who pops up and to whom I'm connected," she says. "I've not proactively reached out to anyone. … Perhaps if this becomes more mainstream, I'll change my tune."
I'm not persuaded Highlight will see the mainstream success of the most famous SXSW alum, Twitter. But Davison thinks that in the future apps like Highlight will provide a "sixth sense," where we'll know everything about everyone we come across. That prospect may thrill and excite you. Or it might just give you the creeps
The bottom line
Cost: Free (requires Facebook), highlight
Pro: iPhone app can tell you who nearby shares common friends and interests.
Con: Drains battery on phone. No Android version. Not everyone will feel comfortable with an app like this.