I’ve been playing with Path for a little while now and I wanted to talk a little bit about my feelings towards it as well as respond a little bit to some of the reactions I’ve been getting from others. I should disclose upfront that Neoteny Labs is one of their investors, but short of getting me into the beta a few weeks ago I haven’t had any interaction with the folks there and my reactions are 100% based on my own interpretations and not any insider info or whatever. If you don’t know what I’m talking about by this point, this might be a good time to walk away as I suspect this post is just going to dig deeper into this hole.
If you think of “social media” as a collection of various networks of people you know in real life it’s a little easier to see how different sites and applications focus on different parts of those networks. Last.fm for example is a network of people who enjoy music, perhaps the same music you do. Flickr is a network for sharing photos, you can share them with friends, family, or everyone. Linkedin is interested in the networks of people you know professionally, perhaps those you’ve worked with – it requires mutual connections so anyone you say you’ve worked with has to agree and say they’ve worked with you. Facebook, well at this point Facebook seems to be a collection of everyone you’ve ever met or any friend of a friend, though at one point it was a little more protected than that. Twitter lets you only follow those you are interested in while still letting you reach those you might not know yourself. I’m rambling, but those are a few examples of existing sites that enable communication with your networks, and various wide varieties of those.
Path on the other hand in much smaller and seemingly has a different focus. While the above sites tend to share a goal of reaching as many people as possible, Path is designed to keep your network small. The idea of intimate communities isn’t new, but so far it’s been poorly implements with side focus groups, mailing lists, or simple after thought features. Path restricts you to 50 connections, and who you share with and who shares with you do not have to be the same. While I’m generally excited about a more intimate network like this, I almost think 50 is too many – 25 would be much better, but that is not really the issue right now. The point is rather than having the option to link up with anyone and everyone, you have to actually think about it and pick who your closest connections are. Once you’ve done this, in theory, how you interact with Path will be different than how you might interact with other sites. That’s not a crazy idea, you’d act differently in a room with only your closest friends than you would on stage in front of thousands of people. The contact limit on Path allows you to be less guarded to some extent.
But choice of action isn’t the only feature of this, it allows you to focus on your real friends rather than risk them being lost in a flood of people you only kind of sort of know. I have a strict policy on Facebook that I won’t accept a friend request from anyone I haven’t met in person, but even with that I have people that I’ve only met once or twice, and their updates often push updates by close friends off my page before I ever see them. Limiting the connections ensures you only see the people you actually care about.
The criticism I’ve seen so far is mostly that Path doesn’t allow some action that another site does. I think we’ve all gotten so used to new sites just being rehashed versions of some other site, that when something new is presented to us we’re not sure how to contextualize it. The same thing happened with Twitter. You may remember the first year of Twitters existence, or rather, or twttr as it were. No one really knew how to use it, and people frequently complained that it didn’t work like a blog. What?! Only 160 characters? (yes, it used to be 160) I can write way more than that on my blog. What?! No photos? I can post photos on my blog. What?! No way to comment on someone elses tweet? I can post comments on other people’s blogs. I was no different. I barely used Twitter for the first year because it made no sense to me. But then I got it, and so did everyone else and it became very clear how this was something different. The things we’d all thought were bugs, were actually core features.
I have a feeling that the same will prove true with Path. Right now people are objecting that Path doesn’t work like Flickr, or Twitpic, or Instagram, or their own blogs. But I think it’s not supposed to act like those sites. I think it’s a mistake to look at Path as a photosharing site. Path talks about sharing “moments” and while that is easy to write off as bullshit marketing talk, I actually think it makes a lot of sense. By requiring you to take the photo in app (as opposed to using a photo from your existing library) it ensures you are actually experiencing whatever you are posting. It’s more real. There’s no comments, because moments are fleeting – once they pass they are gone (I’d actually like to see it have a limited archive as well -maybe the last 24 hours only). If the goal is to share the now, it makes no sense to have features allowing you to dwell on the then.
So I’m currently enjoying using Path, in fact I’m bummed that I keep forgetting to post to it and I find myself wishing specific people were using it, or were using it more. I think thats a good sign – for me anyway. What will actually happen remains to be seen, but I think there is some real value here and the chance for us all to share some new things in some new ways. I guess we’ll see how it works out.