Taking A Different Path

With Path raising north of $30 million yesterday at a reported $250 million valuation, it’s natural that everyone is comparing it to Instagram, which sold just last week for $1 billion to Facebook.

After all, on the surface the two mobile apps start from a similar place: both are primarily used to share photos with friends and followers, both use filters to make crappy phone pics look better, both are mobile-first apps, and both are highly social apps.

It’s easy to compare. In fact, when the Instagram deal was announced, I wondered out loud what it would mean for Path’s valuation:

But as Om Malik detailed in a post yesterday titled “Why Path is no Instagram,” the two services are far from interchangeable. “I find the comparisons with Instagram unfounded and premature,” he writes.

The truth is that Path is not trying to be like Instagram. It is taking its own path, one which may end up being more difficult. But if it makes it through to the other side, it could end up becoming even more valuable than Instagram. Path’s ambition is not to become a killer mobile app. Its ambition is to become a killer mobile social network. It’s a much broader ambition than Instagram’s and much harder to pull off.

Right now, Path only has about one tenth the number of registered users that Instagram does (3 million versus 30 million), and an even smaller fraction of active users. AppData, for instance, estimates Path’s monthly active users at 500,000, compared to 12.6 million for Instagram. (Remember, these are outside estimates, and thus, are surely wrong, but hopefully they are wrong by the same degree for both services and thus give us a sense of the relative popularity of each one. Also, note how all the publicity in the past few days has boosted Path’s numbers).

Not only does Path have much fewer users than Instagram, but its semi-private nature (you are limited to 150 friends) is holding back its reach. I am not as convinced as Om, however, that this is such a bad thing.

When you take a deeper look at Path, it is very different from Instagram. Yes, it uses mobile photo-sharing as its starting point, but there is so much more you can share with your friends, including your thoughts, your location, who else you are with, the songs you are listening to, video clips, and even when you are going to sleep (never used that one). Instagram does one thing incredibly well: mobile-photo sharing. Path is broader and yet more intimate at the same time. It is about sharing your life, but only with those people who are closest to you.

Today, Path is a drop-dead gorgeous mobile app, especially in its current incarnation (Path 2.0). Just like with any social app, it is only as good as the people in your network who are also using the app. And while Path is making progress, the way it is designed actually works against rapid, viral growth.

As I’ve argued in the past, the quasi-private nature of Path is its Achilles Heel. I personally still struggle with the empty-room problem whenever I open the app. The only people I see in there are VCs and bloggers, not my actual close friends.

Om has a similar issue:

. . . the app at present lacks the draw or the engagement I normally experience on Instagram and other apps. I have found that it does so much that I sometimes forget to open the app, even though I intend to. Path still needs to define a singular addictive behavior and that is its challenge (and opportunity.)

I am not so sure about that second part. Yes, Path needs to do one thing well. But one thing does not always mean one feature (sharing photos or location or ideas). The one thing Path needs to do well is to become the means to share your life no matter what you are doing and no matter where you are.

If it wasn’t for the empty-room problem, I would be addicted to Path. But it’s too early in Path’s trajectory to determine where it will land. At least anecdotally, I am noticing the room is filling up, or at least more people are wandering in.

Path used to be completely private, but one of the smartest changes it made was to allow you to selectively share posts with your broader social networks across Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Foursquare. That draws other people into Path and reminds inactive users to go back and check it out (“Hey, something is happening there!”).

However, keeping the network somewhat closed is still the key to making Path distinct from other social networks. The semi-private nature of the network is intended to make people comfortable sharing things they would never share on Twitter or Facebook. If Path is designed properly, people will share things there that they won’t anywhere else. (I haven’t seen too much evidence of this myself, but most of the people I know on Path are over-sharers anyway).

Path’s growth is slower than Instagram’s because it is more restricted by design. Path demands more of its users. You can’t follow someone unless they follow you back. It’s less for lurkers than it is for active sharers. You can’t just be a lurker because there aren’t enough people in your network to make lurking addictive.

You have to actively post and share to your network. It only becomes addictive when you get positive reinforcement, when your friends comment on or like whatever you are sharing—and perhaps share something back in response. Those are the magical moments Path needs to capture.

Until there is a critical mass of your friends posting in the app, there isn’t much reason to open it up. But once it reaches that critical mass, it might become very addictive indeed. And as long as Path keeps growing at a decent pace (albeit its own pace), it will keep moving closer to that tipping point. Can it get there? That is the $250 million bet investors just placed on Path.

9 thoughts on “Taking A Different Path

  1. Erick,
    Good post!

    Ironically – I suspect the dirty secret inside the halls of Path is that the smart feature you mention – being able to cross post to other social networks – is the most common use case of the entire app. The Path user experience for posting a photo on Facebook, checking in to Foursquare or sending a message to Twitter is by far better on Path than any other tool. And, if you are an “oversharer” … you can do all three & Tumblr too with one tap.

    If this truly is what people use Path for – is it really worth $250M?

  2. I agree with the “empty room” problem that Path has, but one additional thing that no one has talked about yet is how it’s harder to share links & non-personal stuff on Path. For example, probably 90% of my posts on Facebook are links. Links to videos, links to articles, links to who knows what. But with Path, it seems they are pushing me to be a sharer of just stuff about me. Just personal stuff is fine for some people, but a lot of us just aren’t that into it. We share links, and link sharing is still a pain on mobile.

    On a computer, you copy and paste a link with a couple shortcuts and you’re done. On a phone or tablet though, you have scroll to the top of the screen, touch and hold to select the link, hit copy, exit the app you’re in, return to app you want to share in (Path), touch and hold to paste it in, and then post. It’s not easy, and it’s this extra friction which prevents links from getting shared that creates the empty room problem. The worrying part is it’s not something that Path can fix either, since it’s an inherent part of the mobile OS.

    If you look at the most successful mobile social networking apps so far (Instagram, Foodspotting, Foursquare, etc.), they do the sharing work for you. You never have to copy and paste links into them – they broadcast your activity out automatically if you let it. Now Twitter does have people sharing a lot of links, but I wonder how many links are shared via copy-and-paste on mobile. My guess is that when users are mobile on Twitter, they comment and retweet, but rarely share links (other than in-app sharing options). But Path isn’t in these in-app sharing options, which is why there’s an empty room problem.

    • You are right that sharing links via mobile is a problem. You don’t share links on Instagram either. No mobile app does it well. Even on Twitter, most links are shared via the desktop apps or retweets.

      Path is not meant to be a link sharing network so much as a personal social network where you share things around you captured by your phone, like photos. By definition that will only be of interest to a small group of people, unless you are a celebrity. For Path to work, that small group (which is different for every person) must all be on Path.

  3. Pingback: The problem with Path | Andrew Cross

  4. Great post! I am a huge fan of Path because I find it is the only app so far that is dealing with the reality of depth within our social lives. So many social apps are wonderful at letting us connect to new people and expand our networks. This is great; however, the most important relationships in our lives are the ones with our closest friends – the people you can share your most intimate feelings and thoughts. And by definition, intimate is personal and small. That’s the role that I see Path filling, one perhaps not as monetarily valuable as an “addictive” app like Instagram, but so much more valuable in the deepest way. Thus, the question then is whether or not our society will figure out how to monetize such value…I’d like to hope so, but then again, maybe I don’t…!

    • christopher VSeptember 22 2010Sounds great! Your team should be proud of their etforfs because this is a huge leap forward. [though I think on Star Trek episode "The Squire of Gothos", season 1, #18, Uhura had what looked to be an iPad with, what appears to be, an AutoCad drawing of the bridge].Questions: will Butterfly1. work with both LT and full version? I would suppose that the dwg would all be the same, as long as they are AC 2010 based2. be free [that would be nice] Thanks!

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  6. Eric,

    With due respect, I think this is the exact opposite of the direction that Path is going. If you watch their talks, and think about their design, they have no intention of becoming a large social network. The app, overall, is not a social app. It is a personal, smart journal.

    Path is built around getting you to post more than any other network — not necessarily getting you to share more. That is a huge distinction. Right now, almost all of my posts on Path are locked, or private. Every now and then I’ll post publicly, and usually I’m concerned that I’m bothering people by posting publicly. For now, I post on Path so that I can remember what I’ve done. It is in that sense a mobile journal.

    Eventually, as users share more, it will become more than a way to reminisce. It will offer suggestions, automatically (but privately) post where you are and what you’re doing, and automatically offer suggestions that make your life better. Those suggestions will be better than ones offered by Facebook, Google or Twitter, because you will have posted more with Path than with those networks — precisely because Path doesn’t force you to share.

    Other networks are optimized for bragging, and for the “magical” response of people liking what you have done or posted. With Path, the magic will not be the comments that you receive upon posting, the “liking” or the retweets. In this sense, it is not build on the sense of pride in doing things/eating things/seeing things/traveling places that other apps are built on. It will be built on much more practical advice.

    Of course, this “advice” will suggest purchasing behavior. If Path can drive personal, accurate purchasing behavior better than Twitter, Facebook or Google+ (because it’s information on you is better, because you’ve posted more there, because you weren’t forced to share information posted) it could one day be more valuable than any of the companies mentioned here.

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