Last week, our friends at GeekWire reported that ambient location mobile application Highlight received an impressive 75 percent of tweets about social discovery apps.
If you’re not already familiar with Highlight and its competitors Sonar, Banjo, and Glancee, ambient awareness apps run in the background of your mobile OS and notify users when interesting people, who are also using the app, are nearby. Each app has its own way of doing this. For example, Highlight looks at your social graph data from Facebook to show users with common interests or mutual friends while Sonar shows users prioritize by the highest the number of common connections through Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
If you think this sounds creepy, you’re not the only one. The success of Highlight and other ambient location apps will most definitely rest on how people’s feel about personal privacy. But the potential value of these applications remain compelling. Are these next-gen location applications the fulfillment of the promises that Foursquare promised a few years back? Will Highlight or Sonar successfully use context data, location and social interests to facilitate real world, face-to-face connections?
Some would say that these apps, Highlight top among them, were the darlings of SXSW before it even started, with significant pre-conference coverage from TechCrunch (Michael Arrington’s Crunchfund has conspicuously invested in Highlight) as well as a number of breakout sessions and a keynote devoted to the app’s category.
I began using Highlight about two weeks before I headed to Austin. Overall, I had a positive first experience with it, learning that some of my neighbors on the app were active in the startup scene or developers working on cool projects. None of these “highlights” turned into anything meaningful. I didn’t reach out to any of them. So I thought, it’d be fun to use the app as a networking tool at SXSW.
As I suspected, there was a lot of activity on Highlight during the conference, given the nature of the early adopter crowd. Interestingly enough, I connected with the first four people I messaged through the app and ended up briefly sitting down with three of them to hear their thoughts on that app and how their SXSW experience was going.
*I was especially looked forward to talking with Amanda, as Highlight’s user base–from what I saw at SXSW–seemed to skew heavily male.
I wouldn’t say Highlight is game changer for networking or meeting new, interesting people, but it can streamline the process, especially if the people you’re trying to meet are early adopters and mobile app geeks. Highlight did help me meet a media contact in Italy, where my company holds an office, and two aspiring entrepreneurs in the Amsterdam and San Francisco startup scenes (not to mention Paul invited me out to a great party hosted by the Amsterdam Fellows).
It’s important to point out that Highlight and its competitors haven’t been the first mobile apps to use contextual data to bridge our online lives with our real lives. Grindr, an app that uses location data to help gay men arrange hookups, has been live since 2009. Another interesting development in this space is INTRO, an app that shares some features of Highlight but that is specifically positioned for business and pairs with a user’s LinkedIn account.
Not everyone is impressed and some see these apps as no more than a fad. “Ambient social location apps will be consumer duds” and are “destined for obscurity,” says ReadWriteWeb contributor Dan Rowinski. “The microclimate that is SXSW often creates hype for services that, ultimately, no one is going to really care about.” While I tend to agree with Rowinski’s overall sentiment, I’m not so eager to dismiss ambient location quite yet. If you can get pass the creepiness factor (and that’s a big if), these apps offer a glimpse into the tremendous value that the social, mobile, local web can offer: making it easier to connect with and utilize your network’s weak ties to build personal or professional relationships.
Are you using Highlight? If so, share your experience in the comments below. If not, what would it take for you to use the app?