AUSTIN, Texas--When Chris Connolly sat down in his seat on the "Nerd Bird," the nonstop flight here from Oakland, Calif., to get to the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, he had no idea that a new social discovery app was about to play a role in boosting his business prospects.
Connolly, the head of design at Foodspotting, had recently signed up for Highlight, a tool that helps identify potential new social matches by virtue of proximity and shared Facebook friends and interests. And now, as he settled in for the four-hour flight, his seatmate leaned over and said, "You're Chris Connolly, aren't you?"
This was a total stranger who knew his name. But it wasn't a Foodspotting stalker. It was a fellow Highlight user who had seen Connolly pop up in the app--complete with his name and basic profile--when both men arrived at the gate to wait for their flight. And with that basic information, the man felt comfortable introducing himself and starting a conversation.
"That was the first time I've ever had a social network connect me" like that, Connolly told me in the halls of the Austin Convention Center during the first day of SXSW. But his conversation with me was the second: I'd also been on that same flight and had had Connolly pop up in Highlight while I was waiting to board.
Now, running into him in the middle of a mass of people, I recognized him, remembered his name from the day before, and, just as much a stranger as the first guy, approached him. Chris from Foodspotting, isn't it?
Highlight and several of its competitors, including Glancee, Kismet, and others, are the apps everyone seems to believe will be game-changers at SXSW this year, much as Twitter, Gowalla, Foursquare, and GroupMe were in the past. I decided it would be fun to try some of them out and talk to a few people I met using them about their experiences with the apps.
So walking into the convention center and seeing Connolly standing there seemed like a good place to start. Based on nothing more than what I'd seen a day earlier on Highlight, I knew who he was and what he does for a living, so it felt safe walking up to him to start a conversation. After all, that's precisely the point of this new genre of apps: Give people an easy way to make new connections.
After a brief, slightly awkward moment, Connolly relaxed and opened up. He was happy to talk about using Highlight, and told me that not only had his Nerd Bird seatmate introduced himself, but that the two had talked business as they flew high above the Southwest and ended up making a tentative agreement to do some work together.
One person, two apps
As I was thinking about how to test out these apps as a way of meeting new people, I started going back and forth between Highlight and Glancee, looking to see who each app wanted to connect me with. Though both offer up potential connections based in part on who your common Facebook friends are, the lists of people each app was suggesting--both quite long now that I was at SXSW--were totally different. Except for one name.
I noticed that both apps were promoting Mary Crosse as someone I should meet. So I sent her a message through Glancee and asked if she'd be willing to meet up and talk to me. She wrote back almost immediately and said yes.
Crosse, the executive producer of content at Click3x, said that her initial experience with the apps had been back home in New York City, when the publisher of iPad news magazine The Daily sent her a message late one evening introducing himself and asking if they lived next to each other. That made sense: It was late at night and the publisher had correctly deduced that she was at home and guessed that she was a neighbor.
She added that in her initial experiments with multiple people discovery apps, Highlight seemed like an easier way to discover which friends you have in common with another user, while with Glancee, it could be that the app was matching you up with someone more because of similar interests.
For Crosse, then, Highlight makes more sense because she's more interested in potential connections based on lots of mutual friends. "If it shows me someone with 22 friends in common," Crosse said, "it's probably someone I should have met already and I have a reason to really reach out to."
And with that, Crosse opened up Highlight and fired off an introductory message to a person Highlight had suggested that had 22 friends in common with her.
Highlight and Glancee list potential contacts a little differently. With the former, the list is chronological while the latter does it by proximity.
I decided to look for someone to talk to about the apps that I have at least five friends in common with. But because I'm at SXSW, there are countless people on hand using the apps that aren't that closely linked to my social graph. With Highlight, I had to scan through 20 names before finding someone meeting my criteria. On Glancee, it was much quicker: just six people.
I dashed off a note to the first person on each service, and within a minute, I got a response from Thor Muller, the former head of Get Satisfaction, and the co-author of the upcoming book, "Get Lucky."
Muller said he'd been playing with Highlight for awhile and had decided that though the app has its uses, it's a bit passive in how it approaches presence. "It's taking the kind of active statement of presence from Foursquare," he said, "and replacing it with passive geopresence. It's so easy, you don't have to remember to check in."
But that might be a good thing, Muller added, since that dynamic means the app focuses users' attention on people rather than on places, "and tries to create context around those people."
Still, Muller added that he mainly saw Highlight as a way to connect with people he already knows but isn't already friends with on Facebook. And thanks to the serendipity of the app's discovery engine, he's been able to do just that. But serendipity isn't random.
Serendipity is "chance plus creativity," Muller said. "It requires not just bumping into something unexpected, but doing something with it. So Highlight has to create meaningful ways of taking action."
And for that, Highlight's new feature, which allows users to "highlight," or favorite, someone, is just that. "It's a little bit of social currency," he said. "'Hey, someone thought I was interesting.'"
Now that SXSW is underway, it's clear that the day of the people discovery app has come. But it's not clear that each one can survive.
Crosse said that she thinks that in the end, most SXSW attendees will have to make a choice between Highlight and Glancee and the other offerings. "It was like Foursquare versus Gowalla [at SXSW 2009]," she said. "You need to find out which one you're going to use and which one you're going to throw away. And this year, it's Highlight versus Glancee, and after SXSW, we'll know which one we'll live on."