Why the World Will Beat a Path to Path

12/20/12Follow @wroush

Part of me is reluctant to write about Path, the mobile-only social networking app. The place feels a little like your favorite backwoods hot spring right before it’s been discovered by all the travel magazines. Or more to the point, it feels like Facebook back in 2005, before it was open to everyone. It’s where the cool kids are hanging out online (some of them, anyway)—and I’m a little afraid that if it gets really popular, it will lose its village-like charm.

On the other hand, Path has features that help to define it as a virtual anti-Facebook. By design, the networks people form on Path are far smaller than those they build on Facebook—usually a few dozen people at most. So even if hundreds of millions of people were to join Path and start sharing photos and other types of moments from their lives, it might still feel like an archipelago of small networks. We’ll see.

What drives me to write about Path, in the end, is that it’s a service more people should know about, and probably will know about in the coming months. It’s by no means small right now—the five-millionth registered user joined on Dec. 7. But other social apps in its cohort have grown much faster, notably Instagram, which launched at roughly the same time as Path in the fall of 2010 and passed the 5-million mark just six months later. Despite the semi-celebrity status of co-founders Shawn Fanning (ex-Napster), Dave Morin (ex-Facebook), and Dustin Mierau (ex-Macster), Path is more like a sleeper hit.

If you ask Morin, the CEO, about user numbers, he’ll explain that he deliberately designed Path’s business model so that the company wouldn’t have to grow at the same rate as Instagram and other social networks that are ultimately either advertising-supported, or plan to be so. “If you are in the advertising business, your job is to get as much audience as possible and as much attention as possible,” Morin says. “We don’t want to take all of your attention. We want to add the most value to your life.”

A Path moment: My Dec. 11 visit to Path HQ

A Path moment: My Dec. 11 visit to Path HQ in San Francisco.

And that’s what it does. To lay my own cards on the table: I’ve been a member of Path since the very beginning, and an enthusiastic daily user. For that very reason, I haven’t written much about the company before now—I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring my usual objectivity to the telling. But when you see a product just get better and better, and when you see design thinking being applied in such clever and effective ways, it’s hard to keep your mouth shut about it.

Yes, Path has had its missteps. Around Silicon Valley, a lot of people seem to think it’s yesterday’s news; some observers say Path doesn’t have enough users to be interesting, while others say its mobile-first strategy is backfiring, or that it fatally undermined the trust of its users in the “Addressgate” kerfuffle back in February (of which more below). “Path is an application you do not have and will not use,” quips the rambunctious smartphone blogger Brian S. Hall. To put it in the hype-cycle terms used by research firm Gartner, the San Francisco-based startup has probably passed the “peak of inflated expectations” and is now somewhere to the right of the “trough of disillusionment,” but is still short of the “plateau of productivity.”

I have two reactions to all the skepticism about Path. As a user, I’m impassive. Path is fun to use and it keeps me closer to many of the people I care about; that’s more than enough reason for me to engage with it several times a day. As a journalist, I’m incredulous. I think that Path has a great story to share, and that it could turn out to be one of the defining startups of the early years of the mobile revolution. Anybody who checks out Path and says “meh” hasn’t looked at the company closely enough.

Last week I sat down with Morin for an in-depth interview about Path’s founding, the principles of design and social psychology at work behind the app, and the company’s own path forward as it readies offerings that could generate its first serious revenues. (Just today, the company introduced a new search feature that helps users find past moments in their timelines.) You can read the full 10,000-word interview with Morin here. Below is the Cliffs Notes version, summing up some of the themes that, in my eyes at least, make Path is such an interesting and emblematic company.

Path is Social But Private

As a habitual documentarian, I’m drawn to technologies that help people capture and save important moments in their lives. Path (which is available for iPhones, iPads, and Android phones) makes this fun and simple. The tools that let you take a photo, report your location, jot down a thought, or let the world know what song you’re listening to—or what movie you’re watching or what book you’re reading—are never more than a couple of taps away.

But that’s only half of Path’s formula, and if capturing information is all you’re interested in, there are plenty of other more specialized tools to choose from, such as Evernote. The key thing about Path is … Next Page »

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

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