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Highlight and Making Passive Location Sharing Feel Less Creepy

I’ve been using Highlight for about a week or so now and I really enjoyed reading Eric Eldon’s article on his thoughts on how Highlight is creating serendipitous run-ins for him. I’d like to share some different observations on the product as well as a few things I’m struggling to figure out in terms of usage and service etiquette.

If you haven’t used the product, it’s a pretty simple proposition. You download the Highlight app from the iTunes store, connect it to your Facebook account, and then you let it run in the background. Periodically, the app will send you a push notification telling you that someone you know or a friend-of-a-Facebook-friend is nearby. The UI gives you some sense for the strength of connection (based on share connection). Here’s a screenshot of what it looks like:

Other than the occasional push notification, you don’t hear much from Highlight. It doesn’t prompt you to check in or do anything else. At the end of the day, you can also scroll through your log and see all of the people with whom you’ve crossed paths in the last day or two.

But this is not the first service I’ve contemplated using that offers passive location tracking. Google Latitude has offered passive or background location sharing on mobile devices for some time. I never turned it on because it just didn’t feel like a service I wanted to test. So either the market has changed, I’ve changed in terms of what I’m willing to share, or Highlight has gotten a few things right. As much as I think I (and others) have gotten comfortable sharing more info in general, I think Highlight has gotten a few of the design constraints for the service right and that has a lot to do with why it doesn’t feel creepy in the way other services do:

There is no granular check-in – Unlike some other products, you don’t have to take an active action to tell the service where you are. That takes a lot of the friction out of location sharing and also makes it feel like less of a stalker app than other things I’ve seen. Also, the push notifications tend to tell you “Person X is nearby” not “Person X is at Location Y right now” – it’s a subtle but important difference.

The target broadcast radius can be segmented to friends and friends-of-friends – One other thing that I think makes the service interesting is that the broadcast network is your Facebook friends (people you presumably like) and some of their friends. It’s not something designed to have anyone in the world be able to figure out where you are or to allow anyone to follow your movements. I think an asymmetric follow model here would be kind of creepy – not sure I would want just anyone who knows my username to be able to peer into my location stream. For the record, I did hit the privacy toggle to turn it on for friends-of-friends only as opposed to everyone.

Because it runs in the background, it’s not in your face reminding you that it’s keeping track of where you are – Last but not least, the service sends me enough push notifications to remind me that it’s running and to alert me that there are potentially interesting people around but not so many that my phone is constantly buzzing and not so few that I forget about the app entirely.

The one big challenge I have with Highlight is I’m trying to figure out the service interaction model and etiquette. Knowing that someone is nearby is an interesting piece of information. But I don’t yet have enough context to know whether I should reach out to him or her, whether he / she is just passing through the neighborhood, or even what action I should take given that I know someone is in the area. So for now, I’ve just been observing how others use the service and how people reach out to me. I’ll be curious to see how the interaction model evolves.

Overall, this is one of the more interesting location-sharing apps I’ve seen in awhile. Very curious to see how this one unfolds.

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