Is Discovering People Nearby Still The Future? Banjo: No. Sonar: Partly. Highlight: Hell Yes

The breakout people-discovery apps of South By Southwest are no longer playing in the same game.

Is Discovering People Nearby Still The Future? Banjo: No. Sonar: Partly. Highlight: Hell Yes

Highlight founder Paul Davison sees the world as an awful version of Facebook. Every stranger’s “profile page” is currently comprised of just one “photo,” but with his app–which shows users’ profiles of those nearby–we could be sharing more of our identity with the people around us.


In his vision, you’ll walk off a plane in a foreign city and immediately pinpoint the two people in the room who speak your language. You’ll know that the woman sitting next to you met your sister in London before striking up a conversation and your little brother will get a job because an app tells him that the guy at the next table is looking for a front-end developer.

The vision was a huge hit at South By Southwest last year. Apps like Banjo, Glancee, and Sonar that aimed, like Highlight, solely to connect people based on location were crowned breakout successes. Highlight was crowned out the breakout-est. The app itself, however, hasn’t been as quick to catch on as the idea behind it. According to AppData, about 10,000 people open Highlight weekly.

Meanwhile, other startups pursuing social networking by location have diversified their approaches to the technology. Facebook acquired Glancee in May. Sonar is looking to expand its service beyond people. And Banjo has decided people nearby discovery isn’t a great idea.

“The ‘here’ technology is going to become a commodity,” Banjo Founder Damien Patton tells Fast Company. “Friends nearby, all that. It’s going to be just like SMS in every phone carrier. It’s not difficult technology to do that. GPS is in every phone and then you have a graph in every social network of where your friends are and where the people who are also on that same network.”

An app Banjo released Thursday focuses instead on the “there.” Its killer feature searches friends and mutual friends’ social content by location so that you can see what’s going on anywhere in the world.

Sonar, like Banjo, has expanded its scope beyond finding interesting people nearby. CEO Brett Martin says the startup has been working on an unreleased feature that will curate other offline interactions.


“In the same way that Facebook is your identity for the web,” Martin says, “imagine that Sonar was your mobile identity that was helping personalize your experience as you move around the real world. “

Both Banjo and Sonar will continue to offer people-finding capabilities in addition to their new features. Martin says people will continue to be one focus for Sonar. Banjo plans to release the people-finding capability as an API so that anyone can build an app that shows them which of their contacts and their contacts’ contacts are nearby.

Highlight, now a team of seven, hasn’t wavered from its original concept. The startup is working on a new version of the app that will make it more efficient for nearby strangers to exchange information about themselves. Hands flying to emphasize his point, Highlight’s Davison sounds just as breathlessly passionate about his vision as he did last March.

“I’m absolutely certain this will exist,” he says. “It’s a huge shift in how the world works. It’s like when the web came out and we called it cyberspace…we asked questions like ‘do only weirdos use this?’ and we wouldn’t put our credit cards on the Internet. It took us a while.”

While the technology might not be rocket science, neither is that of Twitter or Instagram, he says. User experience sets competitors with similar functions apart, and Highlight is committed to nailing down the right one for location-based personal data exchange–even if most of its competitors have moved on.

[Image: Flickr user Mark Sebastian]

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.