Path: Where the Right Friends Are

Path The Airspace

Mobility is the moniker of the modern network. Software design has reached a point where lightweight packaging and sensible interface align to form a new category of applications. There are few services which properly handle the lattice formed by combining mobile social network and traditional app development Most social networks, like Facebook and Google+, exist on the web and are therefore too clumsy, lumbering, and complicated to port to a mobile device in an intuitive way. The process and limits of web design and native app design are genetically different.

More importantly than that, your mobile device is a personal one. It’s ever present, always on, and almost never more than a couple feet away—even when you sleep. It holds your favorite photos, and your personal messages. It tracks where you go, what you eat, and the things that you do. It’s your secretary, muse, library and personal orchestra. A recently reinvigorated mobile app, Path, is the first app to take all that information, invite your friends, and create a social network for you to sincerely take part in—no masks, charades, or BS; just you.

The Personal Network

Path, led by ex-facebooker Dave Morin, sets the stage to prove that a purely mobile network can be conceived, developed, maintained and reach a more than a modicum of popularity. Path 2.0 is a reënvisioning of the original photo-sharing-only Path launched in November 2010. The attraction of the network is you interact with up to 150 people (in accordance with the Dunbar number of maximum manageable connections). The goal of limitation is to allow freedom of expression to occur in an intimate and personal way. That’s the draw; the pitch is restriction, and that’s what makes the application substantial compared to other networks. Path holds up a stop sign to tell us it’s okay to take a step back from the spiraling, unbounded, energy of Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like. Launching Path is like stepping out of a busy, overcrowded, unconcerned street into a warm and comfortable coffee shop where you can relax and enjoy the company of family and friends.

Path on The Airspace

Version 1.0 goes live

The original iteration of Path, let’s call it Path 1.0, had similar objectives. It wanted to create an familiar network based on image sharing. It was, to put it crudely, Instagram, for only up to 50 friends. Though the app was created by a reputable rockstar team [Dave Morin (Facebook), Shawn Fanning (Napster founder), and Dustin Mierau (Mac developer)], Path 1.0 simply didn’t take off. It had its core user base, but for a little under a year, it ran circles, stirring its own obscurity. I heard of Path when it launched but didn’t bother giving it a try until June of 2011. I took a few photos, applied filters and put the app away. It way a über-personal network in that I was the only one there. The limit of 50 people was too small for it to reach any traction due to network effects.

Dave Morin describes the evolution of Path from 1.0 to 2.0 as iteration of a design following and expanding upon users’ wishes. Because Path had a small, committed user base for a year, the Path team was able to study and learn how an intimate network functioned and how to take it up to mass scale. 1.0 users would take photos of text that would act as a status update, or signs that would function as location markers—they even photographed CDs or records as they played to alert others what they were listening to. Many of these concepts, taken from the community were developed, refined and integrated into Path 2.0. But, Path 2.0 isn’t as radically different as some make it out to be. It’s certainly styled with better a better concept of social interaction, but the DNA of the application, its general sensibility and its flavor are the same.


Upon opening Path 2.0 the user is greeted with a magically personal activity stream—its filled with images, quick links to the music, location updates, fleeting whimsical thoughts, and sleep status (either awake or asleep). All things that could be mass publicized on Twitter or Facebook but because, in the palm of your hand, and accessible only among friends, they have substance. That intimacy and friendliness is even present in the way you interact with the app. If you want to get closer to an image your friend took, tap and the photo gently zooms to fill the screen; care to save the moment for later, touch and hold the picture, like a contemplative pause, and it will be saved to your camera roll.

More than that, Path is an exceptionally fast application built on good, original code. It handles beautiful animations effortlessly allowing the user to become unaware of the individual components of the design. You see Path as a whole application, not siloed concepts, theories and experiments clustered on one page. I’ve tested Path on the iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, and Samsung Galaxy S (Android); each provided a great experience.

Path on iOS Home Screen

“Products you build for the Web … need to be completely different than what you build for a mobile device. You can’t just hire one mobile developer and take the interface you’ve built on the web and cram it onto a mobile device. I can say this with some confidence, because we just spent two years failing at a bunch of interfaces and doing better with some other ones… we learned the hard way that you have to approach the platform with a ‘beginner’s mind’… You can’t serve both the Web and mobile with the same product. You have to choose. Find the users who see your vision and talk to them. Find out why they love the product and what they’re trying to do with it. Often, they’re trying to do something that you haven’t designed it for. You need to unlock that potential. Take away the things that don’t matter, and unlock the stuff that does — remove the complexity. That’s what will make it catch on with everyone.” — Dave Morin via GigaOM

What’s your status?

Path describes itself as a smart journal. It’s a mechanism to beautifully and personally digitize your real life. Where as a service like Facebook Timeline, which gives the same pitch, is a means to organize your projected life for advertisers. Intimacy infiltrates all nooks and crannies—Path alerts you anytime a friend accesses your Path; updates are called moments. You can even create personal moments that only you can see. Just listen to the language: smart journal, path, moments; it’s your life trajectory, your journey that Path aims to capture and immortalize. In contrast, the word status implies multiple things. What’s your status?—What are you doing right now? or What’s your status?—How are you perceived, where do you land in the hierarchy of all things? Status updates are snippets of self-promoting public demonstration. Updating your status is akin to grabbing a megaphone in public and waiting for the crowd to gather. Creating a moment is just that, digitization of a life record. Moments leave the accompanying baggage that tweets and updates carry, behind. You can’t promote intimacy and Path recognizes that.

Your first moment

Updating your Path is whimsical and easy. Tap the red and white plus in the bottom left corner and six sharing options energetically spiral out into a quarter circle—Path has the most beautiful interface design I have yet encountered; developers will be ripping off their UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) for months to come. Pick your method of sharing: photo, location, listening to, sleep status, a random thought or who you’re with; and create your moment with beautiful animations from start to finish.
Once posted, your friends—and I feel completely comfortable actually calling them friends—can comment on your moment or react using non-verbal emoticon buttons. You can’t “like” or “favorite” or “+1″ but you can gasp, smile, frown, cry, laugh, or love. Sure the images are caricatures of real emotions but it’s far more appropriate to frown at a moment about someone losing their job than it is to like a status of the same content.


It’s also important to point out the “who you’re with” functionality is derivative of a Path “Short” conceived in a hackathon, named “w/” (With). The goal of w/ was to capture all your moments using physical social proximity and tweet them out. If you were going somewhere with friends, you would fire up w/, tag your friends, and the app would generate the tweet for you, “beautiful photo optional.” w/ (formerly at has been discontinued and all major w/ features are found in Path 2.0


My Path

Listening Post

The silent masses

After people have visited your moment, the number of people who have seen it appears to the right of your content. Tap it and you see their faces. Now seeing the viewers faces is great, but the number itself bothers me. By including a number it breaks the intimate space of Path by jerking people back to the Facebook, number-obsessed, world. Leave the number out. No numbers belong on Path, not even 150. But the faces are valuable. They act like little nods between people saying, “Yes, I see what you’ve done. I recognize you.” This is a particularly important and fulfilling interaction that other services can’t recreate. And it has to do with the climate of audiences. Statistics show that the majority of Twitter users are listeners—they just follow accounts without ever tweeting. If you post something on Facebook the absolute majority of people will see your status update but wont comment on or like it. Content is carried around and absorbed by this huge observing class. There is simply no good way to get feedback from them on bloated networks. If you got a notification every time anybody read one of your updates, the data mass would be overwhelming, inundating, and utterly useless. When the observing group is made of you genuine friends, their interaction with your content matters. The power to see who has viewed your moments is akin to hearing you friends say, “We’re here, we’re listening, and we care.” No +1 will ever mean that much.

Location, location, location

I always have a problem with geo-centric services. I detest Foursquare, and had small hopes for Gowalla (pre-acquisition). I don’t share my location on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. It generally doesn’t add to the narrative created by the post so I find it trivial and overly present. It’s too personal to share on that public a level. I’d liken it to grabbing the megaphone and hollering about your romantic life (which people do on Facebook, Twitter, etc.). It’s a personal statement that doesn’t belong in the crafted, superficial, and public forum. That being said, I am absolutely thrilled to share my location on Path. If I’m at a good restaurant, I’ll share it not because I want people to know I eat well, but because the people who I interact with on Path are likely the people I will go to that restaurant with later. If you leave town and travel a significant distance, Path will auto-update that you’ve arrived at your destination city. The people I share with on Path are the people I would have told I was going out of town, or heading back home. Path just cut out a arduous step for me. If I take a picture at a cool place, I want to remember where that was, but this time it’s not for my friends, it’s for me. Location adds personality to photography and is an ingredient for generating considerate nostalgia, which is really what Path is about.

The Anti-Virus

Path’s greatest asset is the root of its mass-market downfall. It’s very hard for a service designed to limit mass sharing to become mass shared itself. It has to follow more limited paths to acknowledgement. It takes people first discovering what Path is and then getting or finding their friends on Path. It’s a small network service not a no-network service. The user who shows up and can’t find anybody on Path they actually care about won’t use the service.

Since launching Path 2.0, downloads of the app have taken off at a super-massive rate, with promising levels of user retention. But it’s hard to determine who will stay, and if the growth will continue.

In a Quora post asking if Path is representative of a slow product, Morin responded, “Our growth is organic, which means that our growth is driven by product quality and the the evangelism of our users and customers, not by pure virality or broad public media-based sharing. Path spreads from close friend to close friend and from family member to family member.”

Path doesn’t make money from selling your material. It’s not their goal to make your data searchable or marketable or even really accessible.Path makes money through deals with iTunes for any music you post on Path and selling premium lenses for its camera and video application. No ads, only mobile, and small network. They have completely broken the paradigm of social networking. The other companies demand perpetual unlimited growth to function. Path doesn’t aim for that. They want to provide an experience unlike that of other networks and to do that they had to take the non-viral approach. Breaking the paradigm is exactly what they needed to do. It just doesn’t help keep the service popular.

The short of it (tl;dr)

Path is one of the greatest apps made for iOS if not the greatest made for Android. It’s a no brainer download just to experience how good the design and UX is. Get your friends on it but be hyper-selective in who you let it. It’s hard to say no to “friend requests.” Really consider the meaning of the word “friend” and don’t feel bad if you turn someone away—they can always find you on Facebook. 150 isn’t a number of friends to target. I use Path happily with less than 50 connections and it functions ideally. You’ll be amazed at how interesting a social network can become when it’s omnipresent, real, and casual. Path doesn’t follow normal conventions so be prepared to treat it differently. For those thinking you don’t need another social network to manage, I say, “You don’t need Facebook. Substitute Path for that.” Path is making improvements all the time, and receives almost unanimously positive reviews on the AppStore.  It’s great to witness the application grow as the developers learn more and more about the users.  Path is well made and does a great job to foster conversation. It’s not a network to stalk or boast about. Logging into it is like hanging out with friends. That alone was enough to sell me.

Path is available on the Apple AppStore and Android Marketplace.

Video Source: Le Web

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