The Undefined Path

Four years ago I began using a new social network and since then, I’ve posted over 7,500 “moments” that only a few friends are privy to see. The service I’m using and of which I’m talking about is Path. And for many years, it’s been a lightning rod for criticism over privacy or just the standard cliche jab: “Are people still using Path?” But after all of that, I personally remain a fan of the service — well at least until recently. It has dawned on me that I’m not really sure what Path is really up to, so I thought I’d jot down my thoughts here to see if it’s possible to make heads or tails of whether this Path is about to lead us to a dangerous cliff.

Bottom line: Path has evolved its focus, moving away from being a private social network to an app studio — will this new shift really help it succeed? And can it help the company shed away its rocky past?

Dare to be private

If you’re not familiar with Path, it started approximately five years ago following Dave Morin’s departure from Facebook, where he led the development of the social network’s platform. The concept at first was to be a private photo-sharing network. As former TechCrunch reporter Jason Kincaid once put it: think Instagram, but without the filters and with a privacy model that takes away any anxiety associated with sharing photos with people you don’t know. Surely a noble concept, but the first iteration failed to really gain any traction. Path eventually launched its 2.0 version of its namesake app and that quickly took off and got the attention of the media and users — at one point, it had over 300,000 daily users.


The second iteration of Path certainly received acclaim, but mostly for its design. Personally, I was initially reluctant to check it out. I mean, why would I elect to use this new privacy app versus using my main social network where I can choose which friend to display my content to? It seemed like double-work. No way that this would succeed. But dive into the deep end of the pool, I did…and I grew attached to the service, constantly posting photos, status updates, and other pieces of content that allowed me to vent, pontificate, and share with my closest 150 friends. It worked pretty good for the first two to three years, but over time I’ve started to see a drop off of engagement in the number of people using the app with just a dozen or so friends interacting with my memories now (out of a friend list of nearly 125). Just what’s going on?

During a PandoDaily event in 2012, Morin was asked by Sarah Lacy how the company started. He responded by saying it’s the antithesis of Facebook whereby the purpose is to act like the family table or your home. While Facebook could be considered something eager to create cities and towns, Path’s focus was to be more about creating personal memories and allowing you to have a “home” on the Internet.


Vision distorted?

That’s all well and good, but in the face of the past five years, has Path really stuck to its convictions? That’s a rather subjective question. At least for me, I think that the company has subtlety evolved its messaging so it’s no longer about sharing moments privately with close friends and family, but rather about helping you express yourself throughout “journey” through life, regardless of whoever is listening. As Morin told Business Insider earlier this week: “Last year, we shifted to a multi-apps or studio strategy where we have multiple apps under our umbrella…” so the transformation has already been taking place. But will this wind up being a win for this company?

To be honest, the whole thing about Path’s new direction, as it were, really concerns me. I can buy into it in the ultimate end, but much of what the company has done just didn’t make a whole lot of sense piecemeal. After Path 2.0 was released, that looked to have quite a bit of potential. Eventually the company began iterating, including making it available on iPad with an interesting horizontal layout (see below), but which has since gone away never to be seen again. Then it added a search feature to aid in social discovery, but failed to really iterate on it rendering it mostly ineffective to this very day, and then opened up its API to select services, including WordPress, Nike, Strava, and others.


All of these helped Path really stick with its guns around being a social network for your close friends. Hell, even the first time it released stickers was kind of interesting and there seemed to be potential for its first monetization plan with its $14.99 premium plan. But that soon became tiresome. So later, when there was a new release to Path (version 4.0), it was underwhelming: simplified navigation, new stickers (!), and removal of its 150 friends limit — this further cast a spotlight on the fact that Path no longer was interested in being appealing for its intimate social network. Perhaps the only thing that offered some incentive was the acquisition of TalkTo and the debut of a new messaging service called Path Talk.

It’s about the journey and letting people be themselves

Launching a social network can be difficult — no question about it. Especially when you’re going up against Facebook, you’ll need a lot of resources and a strong argument for why you’re better. Perhaps after all these years, Path has decided to shift its gears towards a different message, maybe even something that it hadn’t really touted as strongly before. Then something caught my eye from an interview Morin did earlier this year with his friend and former Google Ventures partner Kevin Rose. In it, he was quoted as saying what would be success for Path: “It’s about people being themselves…”

And that’s the journey that Path is currently on. Its main focus isn’t on a private social network — that has become more tactical than anything. Instead, how people wish to document their journey through life and express themselves is the underlying mission that it appears the company is getting behind. With its declaration that it’s now an app studio, Path is rolling out different products to accomplish just that task, including its most recent one called Kong, a selfie/animated GIF creator. Kong is the second new product to come out of Path studios, with Path Talk being the first. But both are drastically different from the core business, which Morin has said is still alive, especially in Asia.


But Path’s app studio strategy may not necessarily help turn things around. Yes, the release of Path Talk sure breathed life into the service, especially when you could communicate directly with businesses without having to actually call them — you just message them (via a Path liaison). And by leveraging the premium plan originally implemented for its core app, the company could have had something as a subscription service. But it may have to do better following Facebook’s foray into the space with its Messenger platform, which not only allows you to communicate with businesses via its service, but also interact (e.g. track shipping, provide feedback, file complaints, make purchases, and more). In order to remain competitive, Path will surely have to think outside the box and come up with new ways to really stand out while not only trying to engage its existing users.

Of course, this whole thing about Path’s direction could be boiled down to the fact that it’s not about any specific theme or philosophy — maybe I’m just overthinking things. But watch Morin’s talk about Path’s strategy on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco and see if there’s a common theme for all the different things that it’s doing:

I suppose what I’m getting at is whether Path remains a viable platform and if so, what’s its core mission?

Photo credits: screenshots of Path for iPad and Kong via Path.

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