How You Can Social Engineer Your Social Life

Highlight, Airtime, and a slew of other companies want to use your location on your phone and your connections online to suggest people you should know. Is this the future of meeting people?

Boonsri Dickinson, Associate Editor of BYTE

June 15, 2012

6 Min Read

These days, it's not hard to social engineer your social life. What does this mean? All you need is a good Internet connection, a Facebook page, and an open mind, and you can meet whomever pops up on your computer screen.

I signed onto Facebook to try out Sean Parker's new startup Airtime, a video service that wants to help you discover people with similar interests. To meet someone new I simply clicked on "Talk To Someone". Airtime matched my interests with someone in my network and it came up with Anthony Quintano, a senior community manager at NBC News.

Quintano figured I was a tech journalist within minutes of talking to me.

I only got to chat to Quintano for a few minutes, but I was left with a good feeling about him, enough to request his friendship on Facebook. He accepted, so the feeling was mutual.

Services like Airtime aim to duplicate random conversations that in the past you might have had on the bus or waiting in line for lunch. Except in this case, even more so than in real life, you aren't bound by physical proximity so much as having similar jobs. I could see right into his studio on the East coast and he could see into my cube on the West coast.

Airtime brings serendipity to an otherwise boring, predictable Internet. It does this by tapping into Facebook's open graph--you have to be a Facebook member to use it--sort of like Chatroulette with more accountability.

So is this the future of meeting people?

I think so. Curated experiences are key. Celebrities will go on Airtime to talk to their fans. Business folks will get pumped about meeting similar folks in the industry. Or for fun, you can talk to a small percentage of the one billion people on Facebook--who might be from anywhere in the world.

That is why I am not surprised that Airtime was the darling of the Glimpse social discovery conference, which was held in San Francisco on June 6. Airtime as well as other apps such as Highlight want to push the boundaries in how we connect with each other. And the more data we put into our social networks, the better algorithms can predict what kind of people we like and activities we'd like to do.

The desire to connect depends on your geography. And perhaps how lonely you feel. For people living in the middle of nowhere, simulating the spontaneity of meeting in urban sprawls is appealing. Bring New York density to a farm in middle America.

Stephen Chau, co-founder of Schemer, a startup created in-house at Google, said that he's creating the Netflix que of what you want to do in the world. Chau, who was the original product manager for Google Street View, said that the goal of Schemer is to close the gap between intent of doing something to actually doing it.

"In Schemer, every time I have a friend who posts a scheme of what I want to do, that person has inspired me to want to do something later. We track that inspiration really carefully. Every time you inspire a friend, we tell you about it and tell you about your aggregate experience. We attempt to make it a reciprocal process," Chau said.

Opportunities are endless, but it is the noise that worries Adrian Aoun, co-founder of Wavii. Aoun's startup uses machine learning to help you read and digest information more efficiently. Still, Aoun doesn't think machines should rule over all other judgement and relationship.

"Discovery these days is based on social signals, or big data signals. One of the big problems you can have is you can be very myopic," said Aoun. "Data can lead you in one direction. You always want to have the notion of variety. You don't just want to just tell someone what they already know and reinforce existing beliefs. You want to introduce yourself to a diverse set of beliefs."

If anyone is engineering serendipity, it's Paul Davison, the founder of Highlight, an app that can tell you who is walking near you--with their photo, common friends, and interests ready for you to check out.

Social discovery is becoming more ambient, Davison said.

"Background location and push notification have allowed us to build new apps that wouldn't have been possible two years ago. We are moving more toward mobile stuff and more social graph integration. We can take these relationships we've mapped out in the online world and layer them on top of the physical world," Davison said.

So what are the hot apps to look out for?

Davison points out his app, Highlight, of course. Next Davison mentions Airtime for its ability to help people discover other people. Davison also mentioned Path, which is doing interesting stuff as it pushes the limits in mobile.

For anyone who has used Highlight, you'll understand what that experience is like. Davison talks about it as if it is like having a sixth sense.

However, social discovery is not always centered around helping people meet others. It can help you find better stuff online by leveraging shared social interests. For instance, Facebook just launched App Center, which takes all the apps your friends like and puts them into a single page for you. It helps you discover cool new tools, apps, and games based on what your friends like and also recommends other apps that you use and like.

But even with all this technology, we risk living in our own little bubbles. It creates a shallow filter, giving us less exposure to "different" experiences and people. Ironically, the so-called open graph suddenly turns into a high school cliche and horizons dim. The real question is: Are these things going to be more socially driven or more algorithm driven?

"To me, I don't really understand that dichotomy. You really want them to be as much data as possible. The algorithms, whether it is social signals or curation, should all live together," Aoun said.

Greylock Partners principal Josh Elman , who led products at Zazzle, Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, said, "The question I ask is what is the big need for finding and interacting with new people?" Dmitry Shapiro, who founded Anybeat and Veoh, calls it "the 'third place' where we go in the world to meet people similar to us, beyond through friends and work. In the past, this was a bar or bookstore or coffee shop or library."

Elman wonders: Can Airtime replicate this experience online or can highlight make our world smarter so that it can be better replicated when we are out and about.

"There is a big opportunity here for a new behavior to have us interacting more and better with strangers around things we care about. I really like Highlight's model of how it surfaces new information about people in a subtle way and only when you already are close," he said.

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About the Author(s)

Boonsri Dickinson

Associate Editor of BYTE

Boonsri Dickinson is the Associate Editor of BYTE

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