Why hatin’ on @Path is pretty short-sighted

Ok, riddle me this: I’m working at Facebook as the evangelist of the Facebook Platform, looking at how Connect is adding a social layer to other websites while at the same time probably more commonly exploited as an easy online credential rather than really providing much social context. I clue-in to the fact – like most of us at Facebook – that people’s friends on FB aren’t truly and purely their friends…they’re a mix of high school and elementary school classmates from way back, some current friends, family members if you’ve coaxed them onto the site so they can see pics of your kid, or they’re your young cousins, maybe some co-workers, and whole bunch of random people that have added you but who you really don’t know or care to know. You look at Connect as something that extends a login credential – and the take-up is huge – but it’s more of a way to get data back into the FB homeworld than a way to add social context to these non-FB sites – since the social context is really weak there anyway because of the nature of most friend lists. You hear the internal conversations about creating lists…maybe even Groups…but think maybe there’s a backlash a comin’….and maybe you even pre-cog Dave McClure’s post about FB’s lack of intimacy and the integral relationship between intimacy and context, connection and continuity (a post that happens to come out only a couple weeks before you launch your un-thought-of new startup) as the way to disrupt the (new) Big Blue, and you think: its time for me to call my friends and start a co.

Do you take the leap? If you’re Dave Morin and crew, you already did. And I’ll tell you why (I think).

People are seriously bashing the new “photo-sharing app” Path that launched the other day. Check all the hate in the comments on TechCrunch. The reason all these dudes just comment on blog posts rather than start companies is because they don’t get it. Path will be much more.

Morin didn’t assemble the 1927 Yankees equivalent of investors for a photo-shairng app. He hooked them in because he pitched the concept of creating meaningful networks of close friends – the people who you would actual share baby photos, traval pics and tips, invite to dinner, buy xmas presents, miss when you don’t see for a while, get advice from, take shopping, and general have in your life. “Path allows you to capture your life’s most personal moments and share them with the 50 close friends and family in your life who matter most.”

Facebook is not that right now. I am testament to this. I logged in two days ago and ripped through my ‘friend’ list. It was easy for me to un-friend over 100 people because frankly I didn’t even know who they were. Add to that, a lot of my friends and family aren’t on Facebook, and I get a social network that is more like a place to broadcast data to acquantances while I continue to email my actual friends and family the things that are meanignful…like pics of my young son.

So is there room to take a different tack? There is, but it won’t be won in a “size matters” contest. Facebook is on its way to 1 billion and there’s no stopping that train.

The answer: start small and keep the circles small and real. Try to end up with a group of close friends and family who pass the bikini test, and force people to triage that group so it continually reflects there current inner circle. To use the name of this new startup, we don’t stand in a ‘path’, we move along it, paths diverge and converge, and so it makes sense that this innner circle changes. My inner circle and my wife’s inner cirlce will be similar but not the same. There will be connection points, as there will be between our innner circles and the close friends and family of those in our group…and so on. But this graph isn’t really so much a ‘social graph’ since I’m more than simply ‘social’ with this group. It’s more of an ‘intimacy graph’.

Path is potentially so much more than a photo-sharing app, but the early reaction is seriously short-sighted.

So, I’m Path and I want people to end up with a small group of connections that bears a strong sense of intimacy…but again, isn’t the value in the size of these groups? Nope.

The most valuable connections for me are those that I’d share info with, travel with, dine with, party with, laugh with, shop with, etc. These are my inner circle, or my 50 as the Path team has decided. Lots of people are bitching about Path limiting connections to 50, but I’d think that in many cases, 50 may even be too many. Take a picture of your new son, or your family at a brithday party, or your girlfriend at the beach. Now think about who you’d want to send this to. Doubt you got more than 50 people on your list.

This intimate group of connections will have far more relevance in a FB Connect-style implementation since its the people are care to see what I’ve bought or where I’m going. Anything above that group size means sharing is simply vanity and voyeurism.

Imagine the social dynamics of limiting a contact list to 50. List triage would be ongoing. Your list is full, but your mom wants in…so someone has to go. You are forced to decide who is most meanignful in your life at that moment, and who you want to keep a close connection with. Think of high school kids jockeying to be on people’s 50-list. I’ve had best friends through various stages in my life who wouldn’t be in my current 50…and its because our paths have diverged and we don’t keep in touch…and don’t really want to. My inner circle has changed, so why shouldn’t it be natural that this list changes, too? This inner cirlce as reflected in a “personal network” changes.

So let’s make a lot of assumptions about the value of a small intimate group of connections on a platform where I can comfortably share content without simply watching and waiting for one of the big boys like google or facebook to figure out how to do it like some kind of online benefactors, and let’s assume that people actually want an alternative to joining a beheamoth of a social network, and really just want to stay in touch and connected on a meaningful level in a way that is best accomplished by email right now. How do you bring people onto this netowrk? How do you sell them on the value?

I know. Create a network, ask people to join and build a profile, and then fgure out some things for them to do…maybe update their status. Share a link. Uhhh…..fail.

Creating a profile for the sake of creating a profile is the idiots guide to social networking…or any kind of applicaiton that wants to build a userbase. A job site doesn’t ask you to build a CV and then look for jobs. It presents you with interesting opportunities that you can only apply to if you have a CV on their site. Facebook doesn’t say build a profile and that’s it. They ask you to add more info about schools attended or jobs held, for example as a way to find people you may know. There is utlity in the action and a proper carrot motivating you to do it.

Path started with a carrot: Think about the most intimate thing you could share with you closest 50. Its not a link or status or events or questions or game results…its images. Giving me an app to take and then share those images only with the 50 most important people in my life provides a utlity (obviously one not currently exclusive to Path) while also making the explicit statement that these images will only be available to a small group. Therefore, group size informs content, and conversely the content will influence who is in this group. If I want to use the app, and I’ll only be able to share the images to 50 people, then I might as well add the most important people in my life, and since they’re the most important people, I’ll likely use the app to take more intimate photos of my family, experiences, friends, vacations, special moments, etc.

Boom! I now have a ‘personal network’ that holds a snapshot of the most important people currently in my life. I add them to this network since the level of intimacy of my content will be higher, and as an accessible (less clutter, smaller, not kitchen sink-ish) place to join, they are more likely to join.

Great. An photo-sharing with some exclusivity…then what?

Path (probably) laughs at all the people who thought they were another photo sharing app. Now they turn on the smart. Give me more to share with my 50 like travel plans, content, links, video, purchases, wish lists etc. Remember, early access to path showed it as a list aggregator. That’s still probably coming, since who better to add context to lists of wants, favorites, dislikes, etc then your inner circle. Similarities across these lists are very meaningful ie. 7 of my friends all want to travel to a certain place some day, 4 of my cousins all want the same gift, 2 of us love the same recipe, none of my friends share the same taste in food as me but they all think a certain place is a top 5-er…so worth checking out. And so on…

Think of the power of Path Connect. If I’m logged in to Amazon this way, I may not so much see what people like me tend to like, but I’ll see what’s on my 50’s wish lists, and imagine the co-shopping possibilities. There won’t always be someone online with you, but when they are, it’ll be meaningful and interesting, since you likely value their advice. At GoNabit we use Facebook Connect, but Path Connect would be far more meaningful since people less likely to share to the Facebook crowds that they bought a massage voucher, but much more likely to co-plan events through buying vouchers on GoNabit and share these purchases to their 50. The relevance, intimacy and value are much higher with Path.

Look for Path to get some adoption, less from the early-adopter app crowd, and more from the people who actually want to find a way to send baby pics without always sending out group emails, and aren’t interested in creating some FB group. That said, as with any new business, getting scale is the challenge that makes or breaks. Over time, I’m sure they’ll add meaningful features to the photo app, but also flesh-out the utility of connecting with your 50. The photo app will become a part of the overall mix, but the only element by any means.

…or, it could just be another photo-sharing app.