SXSW is now nothing but a distant memory. Those who attended have recovered from their hangovers and the unavoidable SXSW plague, but bloggers and journalists continue to rant and rave about the apps and startups that should have dominated the festival – specifically, Highlight.
This app, which Robert Scoble evangelized for weeks leading up to and during SXSW this year, was supposed to be a game changer in the way we discovered the location of our current friends and even found new acquaintances. The attendees at SXSW are mostly early-adopter types, and the collusion of thousands of these individuals was supposed to help this app become one of the “hottest apps” of the year and launch it towards the type of mainstream adoption seen now by apps like Foursquare.
I didn’t attend SXSW this year (long story) but I’ve heard that while many did try Highlight out, the sheer number of notifications made the app completely overwhelming, annoying, and thereby pointless to use. (Other bloggers also pointed out that it drained the iPhone battery incredibly fast.)
Seattle is a burgeoning start-up scene. During SXSW it was fairly quiet around town. Now that all these start-up junkies and early adopter types are back into their normal routines (aka, back at their local coffee shops) I wanted to test out Highlight in “the real world.” I downloaded the app last Sunday night, choosing this week specifically, not only as SXSW is a thing of the past, but also because I had a very busy week planned with several lunches, dinners, happy hours, and even a few stops at the airport to drop off and pick up a friend. If Highlight really worked to help me discover friends old and new nearby, I had no better opportunity to test its capabilities.
So what is Highlight like in the real world?
In short – incredibly useless, and very creepy.
After I downloaded the app last Sunday night, I didn’t receive a single notification until I got to our office in downtown Seattle. While I expected a flurry of notifications from nearby entrepreneurs and employees at startups (the office is in an area that houses dozens within a 3-4 block radius), I didn’t receive this notification until late in the afternoon Monday, when a former colleague at one of my previous jobs down the street installed the app (yes, Highlight tells you this). I happened to be friends with this person on Facebook, so I was amused, though intrigued at how far Highlight’s GPS reached. (In this case, literally 3 blocks.)
Highlight doesn’t just tell you which of your friends are nearby; it will alert you when friends-of-friends are within range, or when people with common interests are close to you as well. On Tuesday, I was walking back from lunch with a friend and was pinged that another well-known social media strategist was nearby. We aren’t friends on Facebook and don’t follow each other on Twitter, though know of each other by our common friends and interests in Seattle. While this wasn’t odd, I found it generally useless; was I supposed to leverage this moment to ping him while walking through downtown Seattle and ask him where he was so I could introduce myself formally? Of course not. That’s just socially inappropriate under any circumstance.
The next day I picked my friend up from the airport after dropping him off on Tuesday night, and purposely arrived at SeaTac early to see if I made any connections while waiting for his flight to arrive. I’ll admit I had high expectations – would I meet the man of my dreams? Would I run into an old acquaintance? While a well-known local celebrity did walk past me, this didn’t trigger a Highlight notification. Instead, someone who I have 11 mutual friends in common with triggered a notification that they were also at SeaTac – according to their status, they were on “vacation.” They also decided to “Highlight” me, which seems to be this app’s version of adding me as a friend, or following me. (I’m not really sure, or what the point of this even is.)
Over the next few days, I was told by Highlight that I was nearby other people who I did not know, though I apparently had friends or interests in common with them. During the “launch” of Angry Birds Space at the Space Needle, which I was covering for Forbes, Highlight told me that GeekWire’s Todd Bishop was nearby. This was the first time that Highlight informed me someone I knew was at the same place I was, which was great – except I already knew he was there covering the event too. Theoretically, Todd got the same notification. Clearly, neither of us cared to use the opportunity to talk to each other, as we were too busy being Punk’d by Rovio. In the “real world,” I already know where my friends are and can easily choose whether to meet with them – or avoid them.
Perhaps knowing someone is nearby so that I can choose to avoid them is Highlight’s best asset.
The creepy factor, however, finally revealed itself after I returned home from covering the launch of Angry Birds Space. Highlight informed me that a person I had very few interests in common with – and no friends – was nearby at my apartment. Keep in mind that my apartment is fairly suburban and not near many destinations on a Friday night (at least not within Highlight’s range.) This person – and whomever they are friends with – now knows where I live. Anyone else passing by with Highlight – or downloads Highlight in my complex – now knows this too. This feature is obviously a stalker’s dream and could be a nightmare for everyone else.
Will I keep using Highlight? Hell no. At least, not as it exists today. I don’t need strangers knowing my whereabouts – Foursquare already has enough privacy concerns, and those can be controlled by limiting who sees your selective checkins. With Highlight, you can’t control your marked path or those who see it. I would be more OK limiting this type of activity to a specific set of people – such as my Facebook friends. (I wouldn’t be surprised if an acquisition by Facebook was in the future.)
People in the “real world” don’t need to know their friends are nearby because they likely already do – and have already decided what extent to care and act upon that awareness. Discovering new friends, such as at the airport, is an idea made for the movies, but again – no one in the “real world” is going to actually track that person down, unless they’re creepy.
Knowing that a total stranger could track you down, wherever you are, even at home, is perhaps the creepiest part of this app. Your friends don’t need it, because they already know where you are. In the real world, Highlight is useless, but not harmless, and should be avoided until some degree of privacy and control is integrated.