Path: The Social App That's Not Viral (By Design)
Silicon Valley is in the midst of a mini photo-sharing app boomlet. We have Instagram (which started adding 100,000 users per week as soon as it launched last month), Picplz (which beat out Instagram to get a Series A round with their shared investor, Andreessen Horowitz) and as of tonight Path, from former Facebook exec Dave Morin.
All three companies make mobile apps (primarily on the iPhone) that allow users to take and immediately share images with friends. It seems kind of simple and mundane, but all these smart people seem to think photo-sharing is the future.
Morin and Path are the most convincing about there being a larger idea behind what they’re doing. San Francisco-based Path is stubbornly focused on close personal connections–a.k.a. real friends.
Unlike every other social site, where there’s an implicit pressure to collect as many friends and followers as you can (and at the same time increase the site’s user numbers), Path is only for the people you really know and trust.
In order to force and foster that kind of sharing, Morin’s team has left out many of the social Web features we’re used to. Users can do only two things on Path: Share photos and view them.
There are no reciprocal friend relationships, no likes or comments, no fun photo-editing filters, no publishing photos to services like Facebook and Flickr, no editing something after you post and no global user search (you have to know the email or phone number for anyone you want to add).
And there are additional restrictions. Users can only ever share with a maximum of 50 people (though they can follow more than 50 people, if invited). Every single post has its own privacy settings–you can share with either only the people tagged in it, or only your share list. If you get sick of someone who’s sharing with you, you can “pause” that person until further notice. Users who don’t have iPhones can view photos on the Web.
The most interesting feature for me is that users see which of their contacts have viewed any one photo. So on Path, you can’t lurk in peace. People know when you’ve seen their posts. This might be a little creepy, but it also could cut down on those annoying awkward conversations that sometimes happen when you’ve seen someone post about something online and then they start telling you about it in person.
Photos are tagged with the location where they’re taken automatically, and users can add people and tags. If someone else takes a picture at that same location, tags that have been previously used near that place recently will be at the top of the list.
The idea is those tags will be used to help users relive their memories stored on the service. So, for instance, someone Morin shares with could retrace his “path” of wine tasting in Napa by zooming in on a map of the pictures he posted from California wine country.
But the thing is, if you want to go try Path (which you’ll be able to do in the U.S. and Canada as of 9 pm PT tonight by going to Apple’s App Store, and in the rest of the world within a few hours), it’s going to seem rather empty at first. You’ll have to seek out friends to share with from scratch–but even worse, nobody will be sharing with you until they decide to add you.
Unlike just about every other social service, Path is not really viral. At all. So even though it’s interesting, its numbers are highly unlikely to correspond favorably to those of competitors like Instagram. And after all, how many mobile photo-sharing apps are you really going to use?
“We really prioritize slow organic growth over hyper-viral growth and going after influencers to build this really steep graph,” said Morin, who formerly helped lead Facebook Platform and Facebook Connect before leaving the company in January. “We are building Path to be a 30-year brand.”
He added, “Many of the photo-sharing apps are photo-blogging apps and popularity contests. On Path, you should always feel comfortable being yourself.”
This antiviral stuff almost seems like overkill, but Morin grounds Path’s feature decisions in the theories of the evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar (known for the oft-cited “Dunbar’s Number” of 150 acquaintances, he also proposes that 40-60 people is the outer bound of our personal networks) and Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who talked about the difference between experience and memory in a well-received TED Talk on happiness).
If this hyper-personal stuff works, I think Path could potentially create a third major category of social network, distinct from the kind of relationships found on the two current giants, Facebook and Twitter. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves–and c’mon Dave, you should really let people comment on and like their friends’ photos.
Path was co-founded by Morin, Shawn Fanning and Dustin Mierau, both formerly of Napster. The staff also includes Mallory Paine, who helped engineer the iPhone photo and camera apps for Apple, and Matt Van Horn, who formerly did business development at Digg. Fanning is chairman and landlord of the company but is working on his own other projects day-to-day.
Path has already raised a jumbo seed round with Index Ventures, First Round Capital, Founders Fund and Betaworks. The company also provided us with an extensive list of individual angel investors: Ron Conway, Kevin Rose, Ashton Kutcher, Keith Rabois, Dustin Moskovitz, Marc Benioff, Gary Vaynerchuk, Steve Anderson, Tim Draper, Joi Ito, Fadi Ghandour, Matt Cohler, Sam Lessin, Bill Randuchel, Karl Jacob, Paul Buchheit, Ruchi Sanghvi, John Couch, Michael Parekh, Claudio Chiuchiarelli, Maurice Werdegar, Don Dodge, and Chris Kelly.