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Need a Little Social Discovery in Your Life?

The buzz at the SXSW conference this year is about mobile apps that tell you when there are people nearby you really should meet

A screengrab of the Highlight app for the iPhone

Before you become consumed with filling out your bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament, consider for a moment the other March Madness, where people talk for hours about smart phone apps, not point guards, and debate rages about neither Kentucky nor Syracuse, but rather Highlight and Glancee.

I’m talking about the gala to geekdom known as the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference, which has been going on in Austin, Texas, since last Friday. In it early days, the digital part of the SXSW Music and Film Festival was where geeks gathered to show off their new toys. But then, five years ago, Twitter had its coming out party there and, in 2009, Foursquare became the darling of the cutting-edge crowd. This year, almost 17,000 people have shown up, and the start-ups looking for a big score have been joined by entrepreneurs, marketers and corporate types hoping to catch the next wave before it catches them.

The buzz this time is about “social discovery,” or what you may know better as meeting people. The difference is that instead of relying on friends for introductions or going to parties or bars, the connective tissue is smartphones. Depending on which app you choose, you can always know not only if one of your friends is nearby, but also if someone who shares your affection for say, chocolate Labs or the Pittsburgh Steelers, is in the vicinity.

The idea, of course, is to tap into the geolocation and processing power of your smartphone to help you upgrade your social life. Why rely on serendipity when you have data? Oh, and algorithms, because what we’re really talking about here are people-search results. The app that does the best job of connecting you to strangers who, to use a search concept, are most relevant to your life, will likely become your pocket social director of choice.

A different meaning to close friends

In fairness, social discovery apps, which are free, are as much about finding friends close by as they are about introducing you to strangers. Say you’re out at a restaurant; many of them will ping you to let you know if one of your Facebook friends is down the street. Or they can flag you if anyone you know in stuck in the same airport as you. With an app named Highlight, for instance, you can, once you sign up through Facebook, decide if you want to be alerted if friends, or friends of friends or simply anyone with similar Facebook interests, comes within proximity.

Another, called Sonar, tracks every person near you who has tweeted or checked in on Facebook or Foursquare, and then creates a list for you, with your friends at the top followed by strangers ranked according to their “relevance” to you, based largely on what they’ve listed on their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. Yet another app, named Glancee, likewise provides names of socially suitable people nearby, but instead of giving you their precise location, makes it easy to start a chat with them. Glancee also has a feature called “virtual concierge,”  which would, for example, allow a salesperson at a store you’ve frequented to ping you about sales if you’re in the neighborhood.  Businesses are sure to love that.

All of this, though, does raise the spectre of too much connectedness. Do we really want to be linked by smartphone to anyone within walking distance? How comfortable would you be with a creepy-looking guy across the bar knowing that you like to run in the morning? There’s a simple answer, of course: Don’t download the apps. But they can have value and if they do catch on, I can’t help wondering if one day it will become the height of rudeness to say that you want to be alone.

Social swirl

Here are some  other social discovery apps hoping to break through:

  • Ban.jo: Instead of ranking potential connections by shared interests, Ban.jo mines your contacts on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and other social networks, and lists them by who’s closest.
  • Kismet: Now here’s an app that deserves some cred if only for the irony of its name. Its promise? “We’ll tell you who you should meet, why you should meet them, and who you know in common.”
  • Roamz: This app is a bit different from the others mentioned here because it’s not so much about connecting you to people, but instead lets you know about shows or events or places it thinks you would like that are nearby.
  • Uberlife: After launching first in the U.K., Uberlife just became available in the U.S. It’s about setting up real-world events, or “hangouts,” then letting all of your social network connections know about it.

Video bonus: A little reminder of what once passed for social discovery.

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