By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 8:30 am
For all that Facebook does to help you organize your online relationships, it doesn’t do much to help you interact with folks in the physical world. Every time you enter a restaurant, conference, or hotel lobby, you’re surrounded by strangers who you might be linked to through mutual friends or shared interests. But it’s hard to know who’s who–and if people you know do happen to be nearby, you might or might not stumble across them.
Enter Highlight, a new iPhone app that aims to tell you about the people in your immediate vicinity. Install it on your phone and connect it to your Facebook account, and it’ll begin alerting you to other Highlight users who are within approximately a block and a half of you. You can pull up profiles with information on them from Facebook and send them text messages (such as “where are you, exactly?”). Founder Paul Davison told me that the app is designed to help you meet new people, refresh your memory about people you’ve met before, and alert you to friends who could be lurking right around the corner.
Is there anything creepy about the prospect of random strangers being able to use an iPhone app to determine who you are? Maybe. But people will only show up in Highlight if they’ve joined the service, which should help allay any privacy concerns. And you can choose to be visible only to other Highlight users who you have friends in common with, so you have at least something in common–and can “pause” the app whenever you just don’t want to be identified.
Highlight reminds me of Sonar, an existing iPhone app built around a similar idea. (I stopped using it because it kept notifying me that my wife was nearby–no, really?–and rarely told me about anyone else.) I got to try Highlight a bit yesterday, before it went live to the general public, and it was hard to gauge its usefulness: with only a hundred people using it at the time, it provided only a partial preview of what the experience might be like once thousands or millions of members sign up. But I like the idea behind the app. And if a lot of people start using it, the serendipitious feeling of making new friends and encountering old ones could become an everyday occurrence.
Highlight is currently available in the iTunes App Store; the service part still seems to be invite-only as I write this, but should open up shortly.