Mike Isaac

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Path’s Personal Take on Social Discovery

path-2.9-iOS-nearbyPath, the small-scale “personal network” that limits users to 150 friends, released a much-lauded feature last week, a slick search function that allows users to comb through the history of their network to find different items of interest.

It was widely praised, mostly because, hey, search is fun! And the user interface is pretty slick.

Perhaps lesser noticed, however, was a side effect of searching through your Path history — a social discovery mechanism.

The “nearby” search option lets you find your past entries on locations, well, nearby. So if you’re a San Franciscan who last checked in to a restaurant in, say, Los Angeles, about a year ago, you can run that nearby search next time you’re down in Los Angeles to rediscover and potentially revisit said eatery.

Or, as Path CEO Dave Morin told me, it “reduces the friction of remembering an event.”

That’s all well and good if you like to eat at the same places all the time. But competing takes on discovery from the likes of Foursquare, Yelp, Spindle, Facebook and Google offer other, more feature-rich signals, and the ability to discover new experiences rather than rediscover old stuff you’ve already done.

Moreover, almost all of those competitors draw on far larger data sets than Path currently offers with its five million users. Mining the history of activities of of the masses serves up many more potential opportunities to visit new places.

Here’s where Path deviates: Using search, we can scan back through the history of our friend’s experiences, browsing some of the many places they’ve checked in, and sorting it by city, by keyword, by theme. Within that history, Morin’s philosophy goes, we’re able to find some of the best restaurants, bars, or areas of interest — not, mind you, due to the many signals that the other services rely upon, but because our network of Path pals have visited them.

“Maybe the question isn’t necessarily, ‘Is this the best data set to find a restaurant?’ Morin said. “Maybe the question is, ‘Have my closest friends’ — you know, the ones you’ve befriended on Path — “‘decided to go to these restaurants?'”

It’s a curious approach, and a bit charming, considering it’s somewhat backward from most of the other sites working on discovery. The sample set, by the nature of the network, is smaller by design. And less choice, in Morin’s opinion, makes for better results in the context of Path.

I’m not sure I totally buy that quite yet, however. I wonder, between the Paths, the Foursquares and the Facebooks of the world, just how many folks remember to check in to locations via Path. As always, it runs up against the problem of “Do we need another social network?” by perhaps not being the go-to app for checking in.

Still, it’s novel. And the search function works quite well. Now we’ll see if it keeps users active, engaged and checking in.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik