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Sustainable Social Networking: Path

December 30, 2010

#1 Thing You Need to Learn from This Post:
Path is a sustainable social network platform built with elegant visual design and using sound social principles.

A More Detailed Exploration:
Why do you need yet another social network platform?  That’s a really good question, since Facebook is such a dominant, ubiquitous presence and Twitter is the world’s most active information network.

When Path launched, I was impressed with their clever marketing video and knew enough about Dave Morin, co-founder, to at least check it out.  So, I downloaded the app and gave it a quick test.  I liked the elegant simplicity of the design and function, but put it aside since I didn’t want to devote any more time to yet another social network platform.

In the first moments I used it, the two biggest things that stood out were its focus on visual elements and the limit it placed on the number of people you can follow – 50.  I love taking and sharing iPhone pictures (I use the Twitter2Flickr to push photos to Twitter) and I have been conservative in the number of people I connect with on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, so I seemed to be a good fit for Path.

But after the initial test drive, Path sat on my iPhone unused for a number of weeks until I read the Jason Calacanis story about Path and his three question interview of Dave Morin.  What caught my attention was how Path has been built using the insights of Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Cambridge.  Yes, Robin Dunbar of the Dunbar number.  (He’s since written an op-ed in the New York Times assailing Facebook and praising Path).

I’m a lifelong student of the human mind, thanks to my grandfather and father being psychiatrists, so this tidbit about Dunbar naturally piqued my interest.  About two weeks later, I met Dave Morin in person after seeing him first at the No Labels launch event and later that same evening at charity:water’s charity:ball.  I took advantage of this chance encounter to talk at relative length (for a cocktail party) about Dunbar’s insights beyond the famous 150.  What he shared opened my mind wider to the importance and sustainability of Path.  What follows is my best attempt at summarizing the conversation and subsequent research – if I erred let me know and we can fix it.

Not 150, but 1.5/5/15/50/150
It turns out that human beings operate with a small number of persistent strong relationships and a highly dynamic sets of weaker relationships throughout their lifetime. While Malcolm Gladwell helped engrain the Dunbar 150 into people’s mind, his research is much more robust than that.

The 150 refers to the upper limit of our mental rolodex at any given time, but that’s only the beginning.  The 150 as a whole are very dynamic with 100 of the 150 changing frequently over time.  Think of the barista who serves you your daily latte, that guy at the corner store, and co-workers who aren’t close to you.

Out of those 150, we each have 50 people that we can keep relatively stable relationships with over time and interact in more meaningful ways than the other 100.  While you might not see them every day or week of your life, you have a special bond with them that persists over time.

Of the 50, you have 15 people who you have a more intimate connection with – these are the people you could spend a weekend with on vacation or visiting.  You’ve shared some meaningful experiences with them and spending time with them helps fill your emotional tanks.

In our lifetime, we have 5 BFFs.  We might not talk with them every week, month, or year, but we’d drop everything if they needed our help.  Think of your favorite college roommate, childhood best friend, or the like.  These 5 BFFs likely represent different eras of your life and were someone who went thru some intense experiences with you.

The innermost of intimate relationships is represented by the number 1.5. This is because men as a general rule can only maintain one highly intimate relationship, while women can keep two (her significant other and her best female friend).  Anyone who’s married or dating can attest to this phenomenon.

Three Significant Insights from the 1.5/5/15/50/150 Circles
Aside from better understand human behavior, why does this mean I need to use Path? Patience, I’m getting there. Here are three foundations for why I’m using it:

  1. You feel more alive with people in your 50 – Think for a moment between how talking with your best friend from college makes you feel versus striking up a conversation with your friendly barista.  It’s likely that you could talk with the former for what seems like minutes but is actually hours.  You walk away feeling more alive and enriched than with less intimate relationships.
  2. We will share different things with people in each sphere of intimacy – I like to think of Facebook and Twitter as large public gatherings – we act and say things there just as we do at cocktail parties. We’re acting in ways to posture ourselves that we wouldn’t do in more intimate settings.
  3. Over time, the 50 dwindles while the 150 remains stable – This is to say, we forge a finite amount of stable, intimate relationships.  While we can easily replenish the fleeting, superfluous relationships, the more enriching relationships are fewer and farther between.  You only get some many chances to strike these bonds – most often earlier in life.

That’s Nice, but What Else is There?
Path insists that it’s not a social network, but a personal network. I agree. To me, Path is having my friends and family over for a dinner party, while Facebook and Twitter are like going to hang out at the shopping mall where I’ll run into people I know and meet new people. While I can have private conversations with my friends and family there, it’s not the same.

At launch, Path only allowed you to share iPhone photos and labeling them using three categories: people, places and things.  Since then, they’ve added video (up to 10 second snippets) to the mix with the same three categories. In talking with Dave Morin, I understand their roadmap includes more robust features, each with a specific sphere in mind. That is to say, you can share more intimate moments/pictures/videos/text with those who are closer to you in real life.

My Experiences So Far
Since most people I know are weary to jump onto another social network platform, my experiences to date have been with just a few active users – namely Brad J. Ward, Jeff Slobotski and Justin Keller – and the rest who are waiting and watching (you know who you are). Hopefully, more will jump on board and experience for themselves, too. Despite this limited network, Path’s design really stands out for me for a few different reasons.

Sequential Moments
Limiting the updates to pictures and videos makes it easy to digest quickly.  No lengthy blog posts or inefficient words – just visual images with limited amounts of text to muck it up.  Even if you add a photo or video later, it will put into your stream at the correct point of the timeline.

Different Sharing Behaviors
Since you are dealing with just the people inside your 50, I find myself more willing to share things I might not share elsewhere and even my exact location.  I’ve also noticed the other people in my 50 sharing more of their kids and family moments than they do on Twitter and Facebook.  I sure am.

Built for Mobile Devices
The app is the experience, not the website. Path is built as a mobile device driven experience – fully integrated with your iPhone camera (still and video), integrating your GPS coordinates, and a really nifty comment feature that lets you send a SMS message to the person with your private message. It has the LBS features baked directly into it, not reverse engineered.

Less Public Posturing
Since we’re dealing with our inner 50 relationships, Path doesn’t play off the public posturing that open commenting, voting, liking or meaningless mayorships feed off of. Instead, you share intimate moments on your path of life with the people you want to have real, meaningful relationships over time. Since only 50 people can see what you’re doing, you can be yourself and more at ease.

Still Not Convinced? Consider This
Review your Facebook and Twitter interactions. How many people do you @ reply or direct message on a regular basis? For those you interact with on a more frequent basis, aren’t those interactions the ones that make you feel more alive? Just imagine if you had a personal network where those interactions occurred on a regular basis, not just every so often. That’s Path.

And think for a moment about those times when you feel “social media burnout” and what causes that feeling.  Those times come about when you put large amounts of energy into monitoring and updating your social media accounts without getting the emotional feedback from people in your Inner 50.

But What Do I Know?
You could argue that I was predisposed to Path and its architecture, since I’m more inclined to go with quality relationships than number of relationships. I just need the right 50 people to read this blog, for instance, not the masses.

I’m not saying that Path will win out, but I am saying its architecture will.  Why? Because it’s designed to take advantage of innate social behaviors and principles, not artificially manufacture new ones.

So what do you think?  Willing to give Path a try?  Do you have different thoughts about Path?

  1. December 30, 2010 6:51 pm


    Really pleased to hear that someone else values the careful and highly intentional product architecture that Path represents. I have (apparently) 843 friends on Facebook and 250 followers on Twitter, but I engage with very few of them directly.

    Most of my status posts / tweets are basically aimless attempts to seem (1) intelligent, (2) ironic, (3) funny or (4) interesting. Maybe I’m just a pathetic case, but I really think that Path, in its simplicity and intimacy, is the kind of application that holds the potential to improve my day-to-day life through technology.

    The only problem I have with Path right now is a recruitment one. It’s currently a photo swap for me and my girlfriend when we’re apart.

    It also requires that I use Instagram / Hipstamatic before I push through Path — because, of course, filters make everything seem more (1) intelligent, (2) ironic, (3) funny or (4) interesting.

    • Scott Henderson permalink
      December 30, 2010 8:38 pm

      Thanks for your candor in your comment – I especially agree with your sentiment that it has the potential to improve your day-to-day life thru technology.

      Hopefully, this post can help open the minds of people in your inner 50. I think those of us using it now just need to keep talking about it on Twitter and Facebook – using those platforms’ inherent cross-pollinating effect to attract more people to experience Path firsthand. Interestingly, early adopters of Path won’t be the ones to amass large amounts of followers. We’ll just be the ones to enjoy the richness of the interactions sooner and longer.

  2. December 31, 2010 1:01 am

    Great article and yes, I’ll sign up to check it out too. So far I have only one known friend on the network… one who is always an early adopter, so there’s that… But I love the interface and hope to have some fun messing with this new evolution/variation on the social web.

    Cheers Scott!

  3. dlwillson permalink
    December 31, 2010 10:32 am

    Funny, I just think in macrocosm you are right… I think Path’s mistake is that it is about photography. I think they chose a limited medium that is more art than personal much of the time. Thus quirky kitch canned filters like Instagram win. If they wanted to start a personal network architecture that would have been awesome but where (the use) they launched it from was off base. They should have done it like something like Tumblr but with the same limitation…and I would (biasedly) say they should have done it through some kind of communal informal content viewing/ event sharing. IMHO

    • Scott Henderson permalink
      December 31, 2010 10:47 am

      My initial reaction was similar, but photos & videos are just the initial toe hold. When I talked to Dave, I asked him why they started with photos – his answer made sense to me. Just think of how many photos people have stuck on their iPhones, because they are either too personal, it’s too clunky to share or both. This glut of unshared photos represent an untapped potential of content, especially for the large percentage of people who don’t use Hisptamatic or Instagram.

  4. December 31, 2010 12:34 pm

    Great article. Thanks Scott for giving me a nudge to get going with Path. One of the first thoughts I had when I read this post is how much more exciting/impacting the follow/unfollow feature will be within the Path platform. Right now on Twitter we follow and unfollow with regularity and nonchalance (like when you only followed me for like a week 🙂 ) but since the relationships are of a more intimate nature on Path it will be much more of “happening” when one is accepted into the 50 friend circle and much more poignant when one is kicked out. Although I have always treated Facebook a little more exclusively than I do Twitter, this does seem to be a good fit for me. So here I go!

    • Scott Henderson permalink
      December 31, 2010 2:27 pm

      You’re welcome for the nudge. For the record, it was three weeks that I followed you. 😉 You were part of the 200 person Twitter downsizing and were in solid company. We’re still in the same gravitational field, though, and will be seeing each other around.

      • December 31, 2010 2:58 pm

        No no…I recognized that and also knew you were doing a major downsizing from your Tweets….I was just messing with you anyway. I am considering doing something similar but before I do I think I will see if I can make Path work for my more closed circle networking and continue to let Twitter be more of a mass thing. We will see.

  5. December 31, 2010 2:13 pm

    Very interesting, Scott. Definitely going to give it a try. But help me understand something. Is it the limits that Path has set for itself that makes this platform so unique? Could Twitter or Facebook been similar to Path if they too had taken a similar, well, path? Or is there something else that makes Path special?

    It’s interesting what you say about how Path facilitates deeper relationships with key people. I have to admit that I’m drawn to the weak ties of social networks and the thought of having something that facilitates stronger ties kind of spooks me! I wonder how many people share my feelings!

    In some ways it kind of reminds me of Yammer, which my team at the hospital tried to use for a while. But eventually we reverted to email and Twitter for ease of use. In short we didn’t need another platform to update. But it did offer the benefits of a closed, if not close, community.

    It will be interesting to see how close people want to get online and whether they miss the eyes of the crowd.


    • Scott Henderson permalink
      December 31, 2010 2:24 pm

      The limit plays an important role – it force you to prioritize your relationships and will determine what moments you share with different layers of your 50.

      Yes, it’s competing with lots of other platforms and technologies. I can’t say whether or not Path will prevail, but this architecture built on innate human social tendencies will. The technology that leverages these existing patterns is more powerful and sustainable than those that ignore them.

      My belief is that the more people share moments of their life with the people who refill their emotional tanks, the more this architecture will win. It’s likely that existing platforms and technologies will continue to evolve in that direction regardless of Path’s success because our human desire for these interactions.


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