The Air Above Our Heads: The Growth Of Ambient Social Networking

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Editor’s note: Paul Davison is the CEO and founder of Highlight, named by Apple as an “App Store Best of 2012.” Follow Paul on Twitter at @pdavison.

When I was young, my dad told me about the short story by H.G. Wells, “The Country of the Blind.” In it, a fictitious mountaineer comes across a lost civilization where everyone is blind. They had been cut off from the rest of the world for generations and didn’t understand the concept of sight. When he tried to explain it to them, they thought he was crazy.

When new types of technology come along, we often have the same reaction. Why would we need that? Usually it is expensive, slow, and so basic that it’s hard to see its utility. It’s only years later, when the technology has improved and the use cases have become obvious, that we look back on it and ask, “How did we ever get by without this?”

Ambient social networking is a technology that has just now become possible. It’s not yet obvious why we need it, and it still feels strange to most people, but its potential to transform the world is just staggering.

Not Meeting. Seeing.

Ambient social networking apps help you see information about the people around you. If you happen to meet someone using one of these apps, that’s great. But it’s not about that. Most of the time, you’re probably not focused on trying to meet new people. It’s about context, and helping you see things that you’ve never been able to see before.

Imagine if we lived in a world devoid of real sight – a land of grey dots where everyone looked the same. This didn’t seem weird to us because it was all we had ever known. It never occurred to us that anything else was possible.

But suddenly someone flipped a switch and the world turned into what it is today, where you could look around a room and see people in the flesh – their age, gender, clothing, hairstyle, how they carried themselves, and all of the small details that inform how we recognize friends, remember people, and navigate our days. It’s like the world suddenly turned to color.

Our world is about to undergo a change of a similar order of magnitude. Thanks to our phones, we’ll soon be able to look at people we’ve never seen before and know all about them, and sense things about the people nearby. It’s a profound shift in how the physical world works. And it’s going to be amazing.

What Will This Enable?

Initially, ambient social networking is about the serendipity: Install the app, forget about it, and when there is an interesting connection nearby, it’ll notify you. When we launched Highlight, we were surprised by how few people you needed on the mesh for this to work. With our small community of early adopters, people were bumping into friends thousands of miles from home. Random pings about people nearby were leading to job offers, business partnerships, and new relationships. Apparently these moments are around us all the time. They’ve always been around us. We’ve just never been able to see them.

As you get more people on these services, all sorts of new use cases begin to emerge.

Augmented memory. How many times have you seen someone but forgotten their name? Instead of avoiding eye contact, you can just glance at your phone. With the right privacy controls you can remember other details about them – like their employer, their spouse’s name, and their kids’ names.

We won’t need business cards because our phones will keep a history of everyone we’ve been near. When we bump into people on the street, the app can quietly remind us who they are and how we met. We can search our history to find the man we chatted with on the flight to Kansas or open our phones at the end of the day to discover the interesting people whose lives briefly intersected our own.

Seeing things about the people around us. Imagine looking at someone across the room and seeing information about them – like their name, where they work, what you can help them with, and all of the small, interesting things you have in common with them. If you’re backpacking in Marrakech and need directions you can scan the crowd and immediately know which people speak English.

New forms of communicating. You can post messages into the air for people around you to see. Is anyone driving back to Palo Alto after the meetup? Does anyone in the terminal have an iPhone charger I could borrow? Anyone have change for a twenty? When you walk past someone, you can see what’s on their mind, know that it’s their birthday, or tap a button to follow them on Twitter.

New ways of sensing things. Like your eyes or ears, ambient social networking apps can make you aware of external stimuli. You can sense when visitors have arrived or when a good friend is on the other side of a wall.

Where Are We Now?

Ambient location services have come a long way this past year, but they are still very new. The technology is just now possible. Distribution is different from what we’re used to: At their core, ambient services are passive. There’s nothing that you publish. There is no one to friend or follow. If you want the people around you to join, how do you invite them? You don’t have their email addresses. It’s an organic form of growth, driven by word of mouth and app store promotions rather than online virality.

Most importantly, ambient is a big social change. Sharing with the people around us has never been possible before, so it feels uncomfortable at first. This often happens with new forms of sharing. When the web emerged in the early 90s, it was like a new dimension. We called it cyberspace. It allowed us to cut across space and time in all sorts of fascinating ways. Suddenly I could put up a “webpage” and my cousin in England could see it, which was crazy. I could chat with people on the other side of the world! We didn’t really know what to make of it. It took us a while to figure out the etiquette, norms, and use cases, but eventually we did. And the world will never be the same.

The transition underway now is a similar one: A new publishing space is opening up. Only this time, it’s the air above our heads.

A Friendlier, More Connected World

I love working in this space. I work on the product until I fall asleep and then dream about it at night. It’s the only thing I want to be doing. Our whole team feels this way.

We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we can already see the changes taking place. In cities, people are recognizing strangers on the street and feeling like they know the people they see on these apps. When you share in this way, it just makes life better. People smile more, talk more, and discover new connections with the people around them. It makes your days more fun and your moments more meaningful.

The other day I was catching up with my dad over coffee and we started talking about work. “You remember that story I told you about years ago?” he said. I smiled a bit, knowing what he was about to say.

I can’t wait to see what the world looks like in 10 years.