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Highlight, the location-based app stripping the serendipity out of meeting someone, is launching new features today inspired by the popular upcoming event South-By-South-West.

“South-By-South-West is kind of a preview of what the world would be like if everyone had Highlight,” said Highlight chief executive Paul Davidson.

Highlight, which launched in January, allows you to see people — friends or strangers — who have been physically close to you at any point in the day. It senses only those who have the app installed and sends both users a notification when they are in close proximity to one another. When it first launched, it provided a timeline of these “events” and allowed you to review a profile of that individual with data supplied by their social networks. It was a fairly lightweight, albeit somewhat creepy, way of knowing more about your surroundings.

The new features today, however, make the app much more interactive. South-By-South-West (SXSW) is a conference that attracts the kind of people clued-in to the mobile app ecosystem. Davidson, who is headed down to the event, imagined it as an opportunity to “be in a world fast-forwarded” to a time when everyone owned Highlight.

First off, the interface has changed a bit. If you’re passing so many people at one time, you may want to know who is still around. Now, the timeline shows not just who has passed you in a given day and when, but those who remain close are pushed to the top of the list and say “now” next to their listing. In a place like SXSW where people are specifically looking to make connections, this will be handy. In the real world, however, it might have the “you’re standing too close to me” awkward effect, especially if you’re a slight acquaintance with someone. Situations could arise such as, “Saw you were in Starbucks for the last half hour, why didn’t you say hey?”

The app will also now allow you to search for individuals. In the past, Highlight only gave you a run-down of the people you’d seen in your history with the app. Now, if you feel like you’ve seen a person before (I swear I know that guy from somewhere…) you can search your history for his information and where you might have met. Social profiles are also new to the Highlight app, directing people out of the app and onto someone’s Facebook or Twitter for more information.

But while Highlight has prided itself of not being a relationship builder, just an information provider.

“There’s no friend model, there’s no way to remember people, there’s no social currency, and that’s really weird for a social app,” said Davidson. “But it makes sense because it’s not an app to stay in touch with each other.”

Its newest feature, however, seems to change all of that.

People inherently want to remember others, and so Davidson has found people need a way to express to passers-by that they are interested in them. Davidson’s main issue here was finding the right language for such a button. When he first launched the app, he explained the world as a “bizarre-o version of Facebook,” where people do want to stalk and get to know a person without shaking their hand, but while liking or poking someone seems innocuous, it wasn’t the right verbiage.

“‘Poke’ is definitely not right, ‘favorite’ is definitely not right…’bookmarking’ is weird and kind of creepy,” he explained.

So he settled on the app’s namesake — highlighting people. You can click a button and “highlight” an individual to let them know you’re interested in them. Highlights are totally public and those you’ve highlighted are viewable on your profile, as well as a list of those who highlighted you. We asked Davidson if he thought people might use this as an insecure way of hooking up, and while he agreed it was a possibility, he said that wasn’t the intention of the app.

“There’s not really much precedent for this, it’s kind of a way to say people who you haven’t met seem sort of way in a lightweight way,” he said, “Like a public endorsement of sorts. I think it’s going to add a lot to the whole ecosystem.”

While SXSW was the inspiration for these changes, Davidson says they were designed to work in any small town where the population isn’t as dense.

Highlight was founded in January 2012, and recently received a round of funding from Benchmark Capital, the same venture firm Davidson for which he served as entrepreneur-in-residence. The app is available worldwide.

Photo via 1000 Words /

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