South by serendipity

Highlight CEO Paul Davison

Your phone now knows who you are, where you are, what you are doing and even who you might want to see. Thanks to services like Facebook, background location data, and the fact that all your friends now have smartphones, those devices can act as beacons, sending out information about us in the hopes of connecting with other likeminded individuals. At South by Southwest this year, all of those things are coming together in several apps that will make it easier to strike up a conversation in a roomful of strangers or figure out if this is the bar you want to spend the next hour in.
Highlight, which is one of those apps, is on fire right now, and CEO Paul Davison believes the holy grail of smartphone-assisted serendipity in now within our grasp. There’s value in knowing more about the people around us than we do today, according to him. Of course, Davison wasn’t the first entrepreneur to preach the serendipity gospel, but he’s the latest in a string of startup founders whose raison d’etre is raising awareness of our immediate surroundings and the people we share them with.
Nowhere will that be more evident than this year’s SXSW, where a growing number of app makers will attempt to draw connections between friends, acquaintances and even perfect strangers in proximity to one other. In addition to Highlight, there’s also Glancee,, Sonar, Uberlife, Localmind and Glassmap, all of which have either recently launched or updated their apps to help make real-life connections between users based on their interest or social graphs.
Highlight is the early leader of the pack, and in some places it’s already considered to have “won SXSW.” But let’s be clear: Highlight is not about meeting people, Davison says. It’s about being able to walk into a room and know the people you share friends or interests with. What you do with that knowledge is up to you, but it’s not meant to be the starting point to some sort of pickup line.
Tell that to the cynics, who question whether or not the world is ready for that type of knowledge being shared. Sure, it sounds cool to those of us who live in public, tweeting about our breakfasts and posting drunken weekend photos to Path. But what’s in it for the common user?
It’s important that there be clear privacy controls, and that this type of information exchange be all opt-in. But more importantly, the value exchange has to be clear to users. Let’s face it: the early adopters will buy in, at least to a certain extent, because that’s just what early adopters do. But for the average Joe to waive his right to privacy, there usually has to be a good reason to do so.
So what is that reason? In the long-term, Davison says the technology will help reduce the friction that exists in real-world communications and introductions. San Francisco, he says, is a city of 800,000 strangers. But what if you walked into a cafe and knew that there were three people nearby who have friends in common with you? Or that you share a favorite author with someone in the next seat? What if you know you’ve met someone before, but can’t quite place his or her face? By being able to check Highlight — or some other app like it, you can re-kindle that connection.
It’s not for everyone, but it’s difficult to keep a true believer down. The most impressive thing about Davison as Highlight’s CEO is that he has an unbridled enthusiasm for unlocking this future world he expects we’ll all soon live in. For him, it’s not a matter of if, but when our portable electronic devices will begin silently telling others about us before we say a word. And he doesn’t just want to be on the bleeding edge of that cultural shift — he wants to help make it happen.