It’s been slightly over a year since the launch of Highlight, a phone-based social network for the real world. Probably the highest-profile of several apps which let you find friends, acquaintances and strangers in your immediate vicinity and communicate with them, it was the subject of much chatter at the SXSW conference last March. (Some people liked it, some people found it creepy and some mainly obsessed over its impact on battery life.)
The app has continued along quietly since SXSW: its biggest change since then was an update which reduced its battery-draining tendencies. But today, the company is releasing Highlight 1.5, a new version for iPhone and Android, with a feature which could fundamentally change how folks use the app: photo sharing.
Like the status updates you can already share via Highlight, photos show up for people within your general location (the exact range varies). You can post them with or without a caption, and other people can comment and like them.
It’s always tempting to compare anything that involves sharing photos via a phone to Instagram, but Highlight 1.5 really doesn’t feel Instagrammish at all. You’re sharing photos with close-by people — including ones who might be right there looking at whatever you’re shooting — not the world. It’s less about storytelling, and more about communications.
In some ways, Highlight’s proximity-based approach to photo sharing reminds me of Color, the ill-fated service which, in its first version, let you see photos posted by utter strangers who happened to be nearby. But it’s not exactly the same concept. Highlight CEO Paul Davison, who introduced the new version at a San Francisco press event this morning, says that the main idea is to share information with friends via photos, but that the fact you’re doing it in public, where other folks might see or even join in the conversation, gives it a new feel. (He compares it to discussion threads on a Facebook wall.)
As for whether photo-sharing between strangers is confusing, creepy or an invasion of privacy — notions which helped to sink Color — Highlight starts with an interface which is much, much more straightforward than Color’s. The company is also working to make sure that inappropriate photos don’t make their way onto the service; in fact, it’s having humans eyeball them, at least for now. And unlike some nearby-stranger networking apps, Highlight only shows stuff shared by people who have decided to join the service. Nobody who uses it to share photos should be surprised that strangers might see them.
Highlight 1.5 adds one other new feature besides photos: events. Anyone can create an event, but it must begin immediately and covers only a nearby 250-meter area. Once an event exists, other Highlight users can join it, so their updates and photos get tagged as being associated with it. Highlight automatically terminates the event once it’s noticed that the attendees seem to have dispersed.
Highlight got a lot of attention in its first few months, but hasn’t turned into a breakout hit to compare with something like Instagram or Pinterest. Neither have any of its people-discovery app rivals, such as Glancee (which was acquired by Facebook and shuttered), Sonar or Banjo. Maybe the concept of using your phone to network with nearby people just isn’t a mainstream crowd-pleaser. But it’s also possible that the problem is that these apps are kind of tough to explain, and it takes more than a day or two of use before it’s clear why you might want them.
The photo feature could help: now, a new Highlight user can get going simply by snapping pictures rather than trying to figure out the other features. I’m revisiting the app myself after a long absence. And maybe my pals on Highlight, many of whose most recent updates have timestamps from months ago, will give it another try.