Mike Isaac

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“Path Does Not Spam Users”: Dave Morin Talks About the Hyper-Growth Pains of a “Personal Network”

Dave Morin, CEO of Path, is adamant that he isn’t doing anything wrong. “Path does not spam users,” Morin told AllThingsD in an interview about the self-proclaimed “personal network” yesterday. “Invites on Path are never sent without a user’s consent — any allegations to the contrary are false.”

That’s in reaction to a recent series of complaints about the hyper-growth the San Francisco-based startup has undergone of late, after Path updated its software to goose growth. The change has elicited some public outcry, blogger criticism and accusations of spamming users.

Which leads to the simple question: Can a mobile app be intimate and private while pushing explosive viral user sign-ups?

There’s no question that Path has taken one of the more traveled-by paths as of late. After it plodded along in the low-millions-of-users range for much of 2012 — which, for an app defined by restricting its users’ connections, seemed appropriate — the service has seen a massive increase in sign-ups in just a handful of months.

It has ballooned to 12 million registered users as of today, Morin said, with most of the growth coming from North and South America — especially, as of late, from the U.S.

That growth spurt, Morin said, has been helped by a new onboarding process that encourages a user to “Promote My Path” via social avenues such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. In addition, they’re now able to opt in to let Path search their address books, Twitter and Gmail accounts in order to invite new people to the service, be it via email, Twitter or — most aggressively — through SMS text messages.

Here’s the big issue: During the invitation process, check-boxes are automatically marked to send messages to your friends, which means you have to uncheck them in order not to send out invites. Technically it’s an opt-in process to send out those invites, as the user must tap a button to send them out. But for the average user who is not paying close attention and just wants to get to the app, it’s easily something that could be missed — and, ultimately, could feel like Path has spammed your network of friends.

All of these elements combined is a shift for an app that was once the epitome of growth-wary. “Private by default,” the company states on its website, limited to 150 friends (though initially limited to 50), and “designed with the people you love, your close friends and family, in mind.”

The Path of today, however, is not the Path of yesterday, and it has had repercussions.

Until recently, users were able to invite their Facebook friends to join Path en masse, sending out as many invitations as you have Facebook friends with only a few taps of the screen. That was another change from past versions of Path, Morin said, which once used an algorithm to suggest only the closest friends you’d want to connect with.

Facebook severed Path’s invite ability over the weekend, however, in the wake of a dust-up with a U.K.-based user who joined Path one evening before bed, only to wake up and find that Path had sent texts, emails and (inadvertently) phone calls lobbying his friends to join Path on his behalf.

It’s worth noting here that Path needs to tread carefully with address book and personal data of its users; Path settled with the Federal Trade Commission earlier this year, after allegedly violating COPPA regulations on collecting user data from individuals under 13 years old.

Facebook confirmed to AllThingsD that it had cut off its “Find Friends” access to Path at the moment, but emphasized that users can still syndicate content from Path back to Facebook. Facebook did not address whether the restriction came as a result of Path’s recent spamming accusations, and Morin told me he didn’t know why Facebook chose to cut him off when it did.

“We certainly hope that Facebook allows users to connect with their friends on Path and with any other partner applications in the future,” Morin said.

Morin, who is a former Facebook employee, seemed to shrug off his relationship problems with the social networking giant. Along with Path’s rapid growth, Morin said, engagement is higher than ever, and Facebook’s “Find Friends” feature contributed to less than 5 percent of new user connections on Path. What’s more, he added, Path’s most recent update added the ability to find friends from a user’s Gmail and Twitter accounts — through a new partnership with Twitter — effectively supplanting the loss of Facebook’s social graph.

Morin also maintained in an interview that the host of growth-promoting features have been introduced at the request of the users, who have sometimes found other ways to connect to outsiders and promote Path — ways which weren’t originally incorporated into the service. “We’ve learned that if users want to do something, we just want to get out of their way and let them do it,” he said.

“Look at the one-star reviews in the App Store,” Morin said. “Making it easier for people to find friends and help them connect on Path is one of our more common requests.”

It’s legitimate to cater to user requests, of course, if that’s all Path has been doing. “The more tools we give people to invite friends, doesn’t mean they will all join,” Morin said. “The limit of 150 friends in particular actually encourages a thoughtful sort of curation,” he said.

But given the company’s most aggressive pushes yet to expand the service, there’s likely more playing into this than simply user demand.

After three years, for example, with upward of $50 million in venture capital raised from every big venture firm and notable angel investor in the Valley, Path is under intense pressure to show what it has achieved with all its efforts. Until recently, the company has also not yet presented much of a monetization model.

So perhaps when you’re touting a valuation in the hundreds of millions, a strictly “personal network” just isn’t enough.

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