I was discussing intricacies of long-distance relationships over a glass of wine with a close friend last week when I was approached by a man I'd never seen before.
"Are you Bianca?" he asked.
I was suspicious, caught off guard, and slightly peeved at having my conversation interrupted. I made the requisite small talk, and we ended the conversation awkwardly.
He had found me on Highlight, a social discovery app that shows friends-of-friends who are nearby and one of the breakout stars of the recent South by Southwest tech conference. Though I wasn't in the mood to chat, I can't blame him for coming up to me: He was doing exactly what the app intended, and what I'd invited him to do by joining the service.
The tech world's latest obsession is a new breed of social discovery apps, such as Highlight, that want to fix the way you make friends -- if they don't freak you out first.
The entrepreneurs touting these argue our current approach to meeting people is flawed, but can be fixed by apps that marry our smartphones and our social networks to show us what we have in common with the people around us. Rather than navigating crowds with only our eyes and our intuition, we're encouraged to rely on products that will leverage our online friend groups and interests on Facebook to reveal to us why the strangers around us should be our friends. "Bianca Bosker is nearby. (4 mutual friends, 2 things in common)," a Highlight iPhone notification might read. Kismet, another social discovery app, specifies the degrees of separation between you and anyone else using the app in your midst.
Apps such as Highlight, Sonar, Ban.jo, Glancee and Kismet appeal to us by making the same promises as diet drugs: with minimal effort on our behalf, we're told, they'll help us make more friends, be more attractive to the people around us, and get ahead in life. They could be the ticket to our dream job! The way we finally meet that special someone! These social discovery apps also tap into our fear of being alone and our wariness of strangers, assuring us they can deliver us into a world where everyone is our friend.
In practice, however, the experience of circulating in this networked sphere leaves something to be desired: it breeds paranoia and pushes up against basic social norms that, if heeded, undermine the apps' effectiveness, and, if flaunted, leave people feeling their personal space has been invaded. Rather than opening your eyes, the apps leave you watching your back.
The services also rely on a flawed set of "friends" -- the individuals we've connected with on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites, people who we don't necessarily know and don't necessarily like.
Though technology has always reshifted social norms, this new means of communication and linkage bears an important difference from predecessors such as Facebook and Twitter: We aren't separated by screens.
With tools like email, Facebook, and Twitter, we had a barrier separating us from people attempting to make contact. We could ignore an email, or even block certain individuals. These new social discovery services tap into where we are, what we're doing, and who we're with, so there's no hiding once we've turned the app on. We lose our luxury to respond when and how we want to.
Sonar, Highlight and Ban.jo, among others, allow users to message each other -- and, theoretically, ask permission to come and say hi -- but nothing, save good manners, will keep strangers from barging up to start a conversation.
And by allowing anyone entry into our conversations, these apps stand to precipitate the ultimate context collapse that mixes our blind dates with our bosses, and our colleagues with our politically-incorrect college roommates.
The interactions these apps facilitate range from inconvenient to inappropriate. More haunting than my restaurant encounter was the experience of reading in bed alone in my apartment and being told by Highlight that a mutual friend was "nearby." Though obvious no one was lurking in my studio apartment, I felt watched and my personal space violated. Ditto for being told a friend of a friend was near my hotel room, or close to my desk at work. Living in tight quarters in New York City, I expect to be surrounded by strangers, but being informed of their location and how they might know me delivers a sometimes uncomfortable intimacy. (Of course, I can always pause the app when I prefer my privacy, though turning it on and off as I move from one social setting to another is less than enticing.) Several women say they've been asked out by male strangers over Highlight. I've been messaged by a man wanting to know whether it was me "in the park," which is one of the last things I want to hear from a person I don't know, even one with eight friends in common, on my walk home.
There's also the issue of how valuable mutual friends are as a guide for compatibility, especially when our online social circles have become so diffuse. We each have hundreds of Facebook and Twitter "friends" who we wouldn't know by sight, and the connections between one person and another are not necessarily strong. Having eight Facebook friends in common with someone means little these days.
A more valuable metric by which to discover people might be interests. Do you want to chat with someone who also happens to know a classmate of yours from middle school? Or someone who, like you, is trying to get VC funding? Highlight makes an effort to reach beyond social ties by listing "things in common," which are drawn from the pages a user has "liked" on Facebook. But "liking" The Huffington Post or Lady Gaga offers little basis for a bond.
Warts and all, these apps aren't likely to disappear given that they tap into our primal urges to connect and be loved. And whether or not we make new friends, the best service of all may be that these apps make our online social circles meaningful again. By plugging into existing social media sites, such as Facebook, these apps have the potential to return some relevance to our online social networks, which have become unwieldy, impersonal and removed from the world around us.
The Big Gang theory of social networking furthered by Facebook has lost its momentum, and now GPS is being employed to contract the social universe of far-flung contacts and bring people back together to be side by side. That has real appeal for social creatures like us. Either we'll adjust, or the apps will.