Why I got Highlight wrong (and how Bluetooth Low Energy might save it)

Back in March 2012 I hyped up Highlight something fierce.

I thought it was going to be the next big app. I was wrong. Should have picked Snapchat (which I didn’t see coming because I personally don’t need it very much).

Highlight just hasn’t proven to be very addictive to either me or my friends. We talk about it often. I keep running it.

Now, what did they do right? They did fix their battery issues. It doesn’t put a major strain on my battery anymore. It does have some users, it’s just that the user count isn’t going up very fast and the UTILITY hasn’t gotten to where I thought it would.

Why not?

It has the chat room problem.

What is the chat room problem? I wrote back in 2009 that I’ve noticed that chat rooms get less interesting over time.

Why? Because chat rooms drag in new users (even interesting new users reduce the quality of an already-existing conversation). Eventually they drag in uninteresting users, even spammers and trolls.

Highlight hasn’t gotten that bad, but in talking with tons of users about it I think it tried to solve the wrong social problem: we simply don’t want to meet random people. If we did want to do that we’d just walk up to random people in the street and introduce ourselves.

This is why it has a chat room problem: when Highlight started out it was full of interesting people. Mostly A list bloggers and people at SXSW. In other words, people like me. People that I’d hang out with anyway.

I assumed that as more people used it the quality would remain the same. HORRID assumption on my part. Back when it started I had lots of interesting conversations because of Highlight and the people who were walking by me were people like Jack Dorsey. Today? Not so much.

I screwed up by getting it wrong with Highlight, so I’m sorry.

Now, what DO we want to do? I’ve seen this over and over again: people love it if you step up their experience. No one turns down an upgrade to business class in a plane. But Highlight doesn’t do that. It is too random.

Highlight just shows you other people near you and brings a lot of noise into your life. If Paul made one small change it could radically change and there’s a new technology that would help him do this: Smart Bluetooth, AKA “BLE — Bluetooth Low Energy — radios, er, Beacons.”

What is the change I’m recommending to Paul he makes?

Instead of bringing random people into my life, bring only people my existing friends have spent at least an hour with.

“Huh?”

The people who can step up my experience are those who have a common set of experiences with people I know. Think about it. How often did a total stranger come into your life to make your evening better? Not very often. But the friend of your friend? That happens all the time. On Tuesday I’m taking someone I don’t know to a special winery in Napa. Why? My friend asked me to “step up this guy’s experience.”

That very rarely happens with total strangers. There has to be a common tie for you to go out of your way to drive four hours and make a ton of phone calls to help someone else.

Now, how does Low Energy Bluetooth fit in? This new technology is now in every iPhone with iOS 7. I have given tons of speeches lately about our new book, “Age of Context” and very few people know what these are, even though they are carrying them. These little radios spit a number into the air every second. They use very little battery (the ones from recent Y Combinator graduate Estimote run for two years on a coin battery, for instance).

Why is this important? Well, with Apple’s iOS 7 Apple added a software layer called “iBeacon.” Here’s an article in Gigaom about iBeacon.

So, now, if Highlight added this capability, it would be able to add a feature where it would know who you spend the most time with. Then it could filter out everyone who hasn’t spent time with your actual friends (or at least push the random folks down so the high utility folks are at top). See, if I meet someone who really knows my best friends then I want to meet them too. But Facebook doesn’t have enough signal to really do this. BLE would. It also would let Highlight add innovative new features like “it looks like you are in a conference or event, because you are in a high density of people.”

Basically these radios tell your iPhone how close you are to another user. You can even make it so that your iPhone could “count” how many minutes that person is standing with you. You could even write other algorithms that would know the context. Did you spend that time with that other person in a church? Shopping mall? Bar? Work? Were you in a group, or just face-to-face? All that is now possible thanks to BLE.

If Paul turns Highlight into a contextual app, instead of a purely “meet random people you might like” app, it might have a chance of getting people excited again. For now, though, it’s one of those apps I keep on my phone just because I don’t have the heart to admit I was totally wrong. I hope that Paul figures out how to save Highlight for me before I totally get to the place where I delete it forever.

How about you? Do you get utility from Highlight? If you already deleted it, why did you? Am I on the right track here?

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

14 thoughts on “Why I got Highlight wrong (and how Bluetooth Low Energy might save it)

  1. There are some things I really like about Highlight. To me, I still see interesting people I’d like to meet surfacing in my feed. The bigger problem is Highlight has yet to define what it’s true purpose really is. I’ve meet people for networking purposes, dates, to ask questions and to solicit for jobs. If it were Facebook, a one platform for all uses could work to a certain extent, but there still needs to be a unifying anchor. The question I continually ask myself with Highlight is: what am I supposed to do here exactly? I’m often paralyzed by that question. The app is beautifully designed and I really like it at times, but it needs to better define itself before it can move forward and beyond the tech/early adopter community. I write more about it in this article http://www.ideatoappster.com/hot-apps-highlight-tinder-vine-fad-or-for-real/

  2. I haven’t used Highlight in awhile.

    I’m more interested in a more personalized experience where you get targeted content and the connections you make are based on the content similar content (interest) versus meeting someone randomly or adding a friend on facebook.

  3. I deleted it, but sometimes still get emails about who has commented on my original post (about the weather by the way) of months ago. Now when I see responses to the original message I assume they are spam…certainly not people I would want to connect with.

    I think your idea of using BLE as an extension here makes sense. I’d love to meet more friends of friends…but don’t need any more randoms in my life.

    That being said, I LOVED Age of Context and am using it as context for my research into wearable technology and physical space! Any time you would like to help me “step up my experience” I’d love it!

  4. “Add a feature where it would know who you spend the most time with. Then it could filter out everyone who hasn’t spent time with your actual friends (or at least push the random folks down so the high utility folks are at top). See, if I meet someone who really knows my best friends then I want to meet them too.”

    Words of gold literally ; in short it is about adding context and prioritizing the important ones.Thanks a lot for the insight and keep many more like these coming..

  5. ” Instead of bringing random people into my life, bring only people my existing friends have spent at least an hour with.”
    Don’t you think you basically described Tinder? Even though most of its users are there for dating, they seem to try to orient more on “friends of friends” discovery?

  6. I kept looking for it to add context and it never did Robert. Some very good points you’ve made about this. Highlight either needs to improve the context as you note (bluetooth/beacons) are a great answer. The other option would be highlight for singles then highlight for business. They use cases are not focused enough and those two simple separations could provide that direction needed. You’re right, I just never cared about anyone who popped up because, aside from liking the same tv show as someone else at a coffee shop, there was never a compelling reason for interaction. Someone hunting a deal or new technology in my industry who has free time (a key component, if my day is scheduled out, why am I getting “take time out to make a friend” invites). Hmm, it’s like context is super important! Hah!
    Great article as per usual.

  7. I got some value early but it’s unfortunately diminished since. Which is really sad because I love the idea of Highlight and can only imagine how much work Paul and his team have put in to it.

    Unfortunately Airtime showed us that we don’t want to know people we don’t already know. Or, we’re not willing to commit the social awkwardness it takes to get past the cold start with a new ‘friend’. Whether it’s true or not, we’ve somehow decided the ends don’t justify the means.

    The only issue with iBeacon is whether it will scare people with what it has the power to do. Facebook, for example, know so much more contextually about us than they volunteer. I think they hold a lot back so as not to scare us with information. That said, it’s all just a matter of time really.

    I’ve a pretty good idea of how I’m going to introduce iBeacon in to my project in 2014 and it’s all about providing metrics to commerce and not just the end-user.

    Also, I love that you’re willing to admit when you get it wrong Robert. It shows true authenticity.

  8. I got Highlight after you first wrote about it. When I went into some SF incubator space it buzzed often, but other than that it just sat there sucking battery life. The one time I saw I was nearby someone that seemed potentially interesting I messaged them, but got no response. I think it could work great as a dating app for college students/20 something’s. For me, it just felt like a novelty that wore off quickly.

  9. Reason we made Wonderloop invite-only. And why it’s video-profiles: the person becomes less stranger and you have greater control of who you want to spend time on. I still like concept of highlight but I stopped using it because of confusing features “hi-five”, then something that is like hi-five but not, then chat and then to wild on push-notifications. “Dan har added Superman as his favorite TV show”, push info like that is as far away from I want to know about a stranger. Think they could be an awesome partner for Wonderloop or in some ways we are competing so would depend on their strategy and wishes for what’s next.

  10. I love meeting random people and wish I had time to engage more of them. But most of the serendipity we are looking for in these connections comes after multiple encounters.

    Start ups are all going after the first meeting or the established connection. I hold that the gap is where the best opportunities lie and is what you’ve talked about here. Those people you may not nap know well, or haven’t been keeping track of. The serendipity comes in when you bump into those likely to become better friends

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