Highlight: The Struggle to Connect Strangers
Social networks are great ways to maintain connections with your friends and share relevant information, but how do you create a social network that helps you meet people?
The ways we meet friends, business partners and significant others IRL can feel, well, random. Whether it’s through mutual friends, a common event or just plain luck, the universe’s machinations which bring certain people together is not only widespread but also difficult to track. Conversely, when traveling in a sea of strangers, it can be overwhelming to even approach another person to ask for directions. How do you know someone could be of help, or even friendly, to you?
Highlight, the iPhone and Android app that launched in January, took the South by Southwest conference by storm, and became the poster child for the passive technology craze that includes Sonar and Loopt, is all about making those random encounters a little less random.
“Man, if you could just take a bird’s eye view of the world, and pick up two people, put them together and tell them, ‘You two should meet,’ you could just make life better,” says Paul Davison, co-founder and CEO of Highlight.
Davison’s team, which grew from him and one other person to a burgeoning staff of engineers and designers only a few months ago, is constantly tinkering with the algorithms to make Highlight the easiest way to meet folks in person. Mashable spoke with Davison about tackling the monumental challenge of bringing people together and what to expect from Highlight as it continues grow.
Creating the Magic of Meeting
Davison says he’s been obsessed with the idea of how people meet for years, and finally decided to leave his life as a VC executive in order to make it happen. In creating the product that would become Highlight, a venture more than two years in the making, he explains that he wanted to solve the problem of walking into a crowded room and knowing exactly who to talk to.
“For five or ten years now, I’ve always been fascinated that the people we do things with are the most important things around us,” Davison explains. “But the system we use to meet these people is so bad.”
So, he set out to change it. For Davison, one of the biggest hurdles in breaking the ice and bringing people together (and one that still grips the company to this day) was finding smart but non-invasive ways of encouraging others to become more mindful of those around them. The fact that mutual connections can be found in literally any environment, whether in your local coffee shop or abroad in Europe, drove him to think critically about the kinds of information people are looking to share in real life to make a user’s social circle feel much tighter.
“My girlfriend and I went to Marrakech once, and I remember thinking, ‘I know I have 50 friends here who would be super cool and could tell me where to go, but I haven’t met them yet,'” Davison explains.
All of this, of course, is to bring some order to the randomness of meeting people who share the same interests, goals and lifestyle. Davison says that the app is constantly improving and iterating ways to find common interests among users and encourage those users to bond over these commonalities.
“The idea behind Highlight is that in the physical world, all of these things about us are present,” Davison says, “We are conscientious about how we dress and how we present ourselves, but we don’t have the tools to see all of the information that would bring us together.”
How it Works
The so-called “elevator pitch” is simple: Davison likens the app to having a bright, digital neon sign that displays personal information right above the user’s head.
“It’s like this entirely new data layer that’s coming into place,” Davison says. “It’s just awesome.”
This sort of conceptual effect is powered by the smartphone: Highlight utilizes the GPS found in the iPhone or Android — a form of passive technology that runs in the background of the phone — to group users in a similar area and sift through what each has in common. The app relies on an algorithm, which factors in things such as user-created bios and facts found on Facebook, to match up users in that given area and give both notices about commonalities. Davison says a difficult part of this process is striking the right balance between helpful and annoying; the app’s complicated process weighs in a staggering amount of factors to ensure that users are only alerted when a valuable connection could be had.
“We’re always looking to see whether two people are relevant enough to show up on each other’s phones, and how we’re going to present it,” Davison explains. “We’ve set up a simple set of rules around it, but in reality there’s so much context that it presents a real challenge.”
From there, Highlight offers a few levels of interaction. Users can opt to chat through commenting on another person’s posts, inbox him or her with a private message, or simply give out a “high five.” Davison says the development of these interactions (and the recent proliferation of that high five maneuver) makes users comfortable to reach out to strangers.
“If you think about how the real world operates, so much of how we learn about people is through social cues, interactions and feedback,” Davison says. “There’s a really powerful meaning to those social signals.”
Davison stresses that Highlight is really what you make of it: Users who fill out their profiles completely and interact with others frequently on the service are more likely to see returns on their investment than those who are less enthusiastic. And, the constant improvements that the company has made to the app since its big coming out in Austin are directed at making the user experience more natural.
“As the technology changes, the product will change too,” Davison explains. “We think a lot about how [to] present spatial and time-based data in an elegant way.”
The result is an app that turns users into evangelizers.
“With Highlight, the people are the content and the feed is auto-generated by your movement; the traditional friend and follow model doesn’t work here,” Davison says. “It’s just different, so it lends itself more naturally to an organic growth driven by word of mouth.”
Work in Progress
Although Highlight’s popularity and bold presence in the passive technology sphere are promising, Davison still calls his product “unfinished.”
“We’re just at a small percent of what we really want to build,” he adds, “It’s exhilarating.”
Still, Davison is confident that Highlight, as it continues to grow and change to fit the ever-evolving mobile world, will become a big part of how users interact in the future.
“It’s such a profound shift that we’re about to undergo that it’s hard to understand why we need this,” Davison says, “But it’s going to bring a transformation of an order of magnitude to our world.”
Photo Credit: Getty Images Staff/Getty Images