Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, has a tidy theory about the evolution of the internet. In his view, it’s comprised of three phases. The first was in the ’90s, when people logged on en masse. Then came the age of social media, with users populating vast, virtual networks like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The coming decade, Gebbia muses, will be about bringing people together in the real world. One vivid example is Tinder, the data app that shows people who’s attracted to them and also nearby. In other words, it’s a digital service with a real-world payoff.
Highlight wants to be the social network that rings in this new era. It’s something entirely different than the networks we know today, built not on distant friendships and disembodied interactions but instead on whoever happens to be around you at a given moment. The newest version of the app, available for iPhone and Android, uses every sensor, signal, and stream it can get its hands on to passively figure out what you’re doing, and it intelligently scans users nearby to figure out who you might be interested in. It’s not necessarily about people you know but people you could know. And that makes it both way cooler and way creepier than Facebook could ever dream of being.
The name may be familiar. Highlight launched in January 2012 and became the darling of that year’s South By Southwest conference. By logging in with Facebook, the app let plugged-in attendees browse people hanging out nearby, surfacing mutual friends and shared likes. The idea was to drape a layer of data on social interactions, giving users something that could serve variously as icebreaker, matchmaker or a peephole, depending on the moment.
More than anything, though, Highlight was an idea that was just a little bit ahead of its time. The app was predicated entirely on location, and at that point, determining a phone’s location meant bouncing a signal off of a satellite, which quickly sapped precious battery life. It was also hampered by accuracy, or lack thereof. It could tell that you were in the same building as someone, maybe, but not the same room.
In just the last twelve months, developers have been bestowed with a slew of new tools for figuring out where users are and what they’re doing. New geofencing APIs offer location data with dramatically less battery draw. Bluetooth Low Energy shrinks locational sensitivity down to a matter of inches. New sensors and signals are helping apps intuit the context they’re operating in better than ever before.
All of this is being harnessed in Highlight 2.0, an update that brings the product more or less in line with what the vision has been from the get go. Opening the app shows you a stream of profiles of people nearby; tapping any one will let you see their Facebook status or Twitter updates, their recent activity, or, if they’ve opted-in, what music they’re listening to. When you’re on the move, the app runs continuously in the background, pinging you when you pass by someone it thinks you should know.
Whether you want to think of it as a social network, a data layer, or a “sixth sense,” as Davison likes to refer to it, one thing is clear: The technology to build the breakthrough real world social app is here. The challenge now is figuring out what, exactly, real-world social should be.