Ambient social networking is taking the world by storm as startups such as Highlight are beginning to resonate with people. In case "ambient social networking" is new to you, it is a location phenomenon that runs silently in the background on mobile devices and notifies users if friends or acquaintances enter their vicinity.
"It seems like a subtle thing, but the impact of this new technology is quite profound," said Paul Davison, CEO and founder of Highlight.
As he explained to us, users have been sharing actively by posting a pictures and statuses for a long time. This new concept, which is also known as social discovery, allows users to share passively, which has not been possible before.
"All of a sudden, for the first time in history, we can take a little profile of ourselves and just sort of emit it from our phone, wherever we go," said Davison. "It's gonna have a profound impact on how we learn about each other and socialize in the real world."
With ambient social networking the hot new trend, and Highlight emerging as the leader in the space, speculations are starting to spread as to whether it could be the next Twitter or Foursquare. Davison told us that, since it adds a new connectivity to the world and helps to create friendships and partnerships, Highlight could very easily be the next big social service.
"If you build this product the right way, you can build something that almost anyone in the world will find tremendously useful," he said. "It has the potential to be a very big thing."
Could Highlight be the next Twitter or Foursquare? Let us know.
Ambient social networking really took off at SXSW this year, and Highlight specifically, seemed to steal the show. Davison told us that, although it was challenging to build the product, it was rewarding to see how people are finding so many different ways to use it.
For instance, one man was able to hitch a ride to Austin for SXSW after connecting with someone on Highlight. Other people have found that Highlight has helped them connect with old friends and even close business deals.
At this point, Davison said the app is more about serendipity. But, he believes as smartphones become more ubiquitous and battery life and other technologies improve, consumers will find daily uses for the service.
Highlight doesn't have a lot of features, and Davison told us he hopes to keep it this way. His vision is to keep it simple like the Google search box, so that users can be assured that it will always work.
Like many other startups, Davison told us that monetization is not a priority for Highlight right now. He said he is confident that it will be able to be profitable but that the current focus was on reaching critical mass.
While ambient social networking apps are similar to check-in services like Foursquare, Davison said they each serve different roles. He said Foursquare is more focused on connections between people and places whereas Highlight emphasizes people-to-people connections.
Foursquare's CEO Dennis Crowley, however, has admitted that check-in services have lost some of their initial appeal and that he has plans for evolving the product. Although this could mean that Foursquare is going to break into ambient social networking as well, Davison still believes there will be room for both players.
It's clear that many people are fascinated by the cool elements of Highlight and other ambient social networks, but it's also clear that some are finding them creepy. In fact, Mashable's Pete Cashmore even called them the "scariest tech trend of 2012."
In a piece for CNN, he wrote:
"The potential problem should be obvious: Privacy. This new generation of apps broadcasts your location at all times to friends -- and in many cases to people you don't even know. The physical distance at which alerts are sent varies, but some app developers propose that being in the same city as a contact would be enough to trigger a message."
For Highlight in particular, Davison told us that privacy concerns are taken seriously. For starters, the app is opt-in only, and it doesn't scrape other sites for information. It is also only available through Facebook in order to verify real identity. In addition, the Facebook integration lets users control who sees what, whether it be friends of friends, friends only, etc.
"If you want to build a successful product in the space, you really have to earn people's trust," Davison pointed out.
In response to the "creepy" factor, he said that anytime a new social app is introduced, the privacy alarms that people have are a "natural reaction." He said that if people didn't raise concerns about new technology, he would be worried.
It's a completely new concept, but once the early adopters and influencers convince their friends to try it, the service often becomes mainstream. This, of course, is what happened with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and many other popular social apps.
People such as Robert Scoble and Chris Brogan are the type of influencers that have the power to sway users toward these trends. Incidentally, Robert Scoble actually gave a promising prediction for Highlight in a blog post he recently wrote:
"I predict that a company in this field will be a multi-billion-dollar company in market cap within four years. I'm betting it's Highlight, but who knows? That's what makes this industry fun, the whole thing could change by Friday and probably will."
Although a Scoble endorsement is very significant, he's wise in saying that time will be the true indicator of what will come of Highlight.
How do you feel about ambient social networking and Highlight? Is it a trend you're open to try? Let us know.