Dave Morin’s Path App—A Rebuke to Facebook?

11/15/10Follow @wroush

Ex-Facebooker Dave Morin’s much-anticipated Path service has launched on the iPhone. It’s built around photo sharing, and it’s being billed as a “personal network,” with an explicit limit of 50 friends, as opposed to Facebook’s 5,000. The news went out in a note to journalists tonight from Path’s public relations representatives.

Using the free Path app, iPhone owners can snap a photo, tag it with their current location and the names of any people or objects appearing in the photo, and then send it to everyone in their network. Path calls these tagged photos “moments.” If friends’ phones are set up to transmit instant notifications, they’ll see the moments within seconds, and this fact will be transmitted back to the original picture-taker.

It’s all designed to promote a sense of real-time co-presence within a group of close friends. In fact, the Path blog post introducing the service seems deliberately worded to draw a distinction between Path and Facebook, which has grown so large, and is so dogged by public concerns over privacy protection, that it’s rarely seen any more as a site for intimate sharing or even much authenticity.

Path app screenshot“Because your personal network is limited to your 50 closest friends and family, you can always trust that you can post any moment, no matter how personal,” reads a post on the company’s blog. “Path is a place where you can be yourself.” (Emphasis in original.)

At the same time, the company is careful to say that it isn’t attempting to go up against Facebook directly: “The personal network doesn’t replace your existing social networks—it augments them.”

Path was co-founded by Morin, formerly senior platform manager at Facebook, along with Napster creator Shawn Fanning and Dustin Mierau, who wrote a Mac Napster client called Macster. The 13-employee startup, which is based in San Francisco, has backing from venture groups Index Ventures, First Round Capital, Founders Fund, and Betaworks. It also boasts a star-studded list of individual investors: Steve Anderson, Marc Benioff, Paul Buchheit, Ron Conway, Don Dodge, Tim Draper, Joi Ito, Ashton Kutcher, Dustin Moskovitz, Keith Rabois, Kevin Rose, and Gary Vaynerchuk are among the best-known names backing the startup.

Path says it chose to limit friends to 50 per user because that’s the rough maximum number of people with whom any one person stays in regular contact, according to research by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford. Dunbar is the originator of the “Dunbar Number” of 150—the theoretical upper bound on the number of social relationships one person can handle. Path wanted to stay well within that limit, so that users would feel comfortable sharing. “No following, no friending…just sharing with the people who matter most,” the company’s post says.

Users can invite friends into their Path network directly from their iPhone’s contact list, and they can browse moments posted by people in their circle either on the main timeline screen or on a world map. The post says Path is launching “first” on the iPhone, suggesting that versions for other mobile platforms such as Android may be on the way. The startup’s business model, Morin told Wired’s Steven Levy, will revolve around premium services, not advertising.

Competing with Path in the photography section of the iTunes App Store are a number of other social photo sharing apps such as Instagram, Picplz, and Best Camera. And in the social networking sphere, there’s also a faction of young “anti-Facebook” startups offering private group discussion functions, including The Fridge and MicroMobs. What’s clear is that Silicon Valley serial entrepreneurs (and their investors) think there’s a lot of mileage left in social networking, mobile media, and in Path’s case, the overlap between them. But many of these startups are walking a tightrope—trying to capitalize on the Facebook-inspired wave of enthusiasm for social networking while at the same time pointing out Facebook’s shortcomings.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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