When I wrote this in my old blog on Christmas 2011, I was very optimistic about Path. beautiful, sleek, mobile interface, 150 friends cap, all necessary features. We all know it did not take off, but we all know Google+ did, neither. I still believe that strategy-wise, a “path-like” approach to a social network would have been the better route for Google.
Looking back on 2011 in the digital sphere, it is hard for me to find those one or two highlights that were groundbreaking, new, innovative and lead the way into 2012. Everything that happened in 2011 was pretty foreseeable and a continuation of 2010 developments without any major disruption. The one most remarkable thing in my eyes was Google+: Not because of its success, but because many people realized that Facebook may not rule forever. For now, I made up my mind: Google+ will most probably not be able to significantly hurt Facebook. But it was amazing to see how many people were obviously waiting for a Facebook alternative. In the first weeks and months, you would see a lot of people saying goodbye to Facebook. But Google+ wasn’t able to deliver. Honestly, I find it hard to find any significant and relevant content when I check my news stream on G+ every once in a while, and most of the few pieces I find, I have read on Facebook before.If I would have to bet on a network that might go through the roof in 2012, it would clearly be Path.
I have less than 20 friends there and yet I am already more addicted to it than I ever was to G+. What did Path do what G+ didn’t?
1. Friends concept
Path is limited to 150 friends, a number that apparently is a scientific common sense for the maximum of meaningful social relations you can conduct in a certain period of your life. G+ has asynchronous friending with obviously no limit: People can add you without your permission. I am connected to more people that I simply don’t know than on any other network including Twitter. And since the sharing features and that whole network are so rich, this just feels way more awkward than on Twitter, where I know that everything I do is just public: On G+, I can circle and fine-tune everything, but there is always this insecurity that this strange internet-life-insurance-sales-guy who just added me can see something I don’t want him to. G+ goes for the whole thing right from the start, trying to cover every level of social relation I might have with someone, including virtual, digital, totally meaningless relations with people from who I don’t even know where they found my profile to add it. Path goes for a niche – but the most valuable niche there is: my true, most meaningful relations with real friends.
|Who are these people?|
2. Growing from the niche
This brings us to a strategic angle: Path decided to grow from a niche. They don’t try to overtake Facebook with everything they have, but steal a bit of their lunch first and then see how you can evolve from there. By the way, this is the story of how MySpace overtook all those virtual communities that have been there before. And this is the way how Facebook killed MySpace. And this will be the way – if ever – that Facebook will lose its market dominance. I understand why Google went for the big thing and their friending concept: a critical mass of users is the most important thing to reach for a social network. But the mass you get on G+ is meaningless. It is a quantitative approach. Path is a quality approach. Less connections, but the most important ones.
3. Sharing concept
There’s one great thing that comes with Path’s limitation to 150 friends: You can always turn down someone by saying: sorry, I am managing close friends only here, please add me on Facebook. Therefore, Path doesn’t need lists nor circles. You share, and that’s it. Google’s circles are definitely a cute feature, but hard to maintain. They were necessary once G+ decided to go “anyone can add anyone”, but they make everything a lot more complicated – not only the adding and organizing, but also the newsstream as such that you will have to go through by going through your circles. Since on Path you have only close friends, you will simply share everything with everyone you are connected to. That’s why Path also has both of those features that everyone seems to be asking for on Facebook: You can dislike, and you can see who has seen your post or visited your Path (aka profile). Among close friends, that is absolutely ok.
|Like, dislike, love, laugh – and “who has seen my post”|
4. App concept
Path can be so relaxed with sharing and displaying who visited your profile not only because of their friends concept, but also because it is simply an app: There is no website other than a promotional page trying to make you download the app. This means that content on path can not easily be blown out in the web to the eyes of people you don’t (want to) know. It would require a kind of criminal energy like screenshotting your content and then sharing the jpg on the web: Let’s be honest, if your friends do that, you should reconsider your social relations. On Facebook (and G+) there is a lot more insecurity with your content because it can (theoretically) easily be distributed in the web.
5. Networked approach
I can seamlessly share any of my Path posts with Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or all of them. This makes Path valuable from the very beginning. I can share everything on Path and then select which ones of the posts should also be available for my friends on Facebook or Foursquare. This feature immediately made it my number one destination for mobile photo sharing and locations check-ins. And these are the features that I missed most on G+. There are 3rd party apps to synchronize G+ and Facebook updates, but honestly, i want these features to be in the core DNA of a platform. As a user, I don’t want to care about the competition between social networks. I want value, it’s as simple as that.
On my smartphone, Path took over one of the few shortcut buttons on my home screen (right beneath email and Facebook, camera and browser). I had to remove the G+ shortcut for it, and I am glad I did. Of course, Path lacks some features that G+ would absolutely need to fulfill the requirements that would make a social network valuable to a company like Google.
Google’s main reason to launch a social network is the fact that social sharing becomes more and more important to many big websites as a traffic source: Google’s home turf. It used to be the undisputed number 1 traffic source for any significant website out there, but Facebook is gaining a lot of market share in this department. This is something that Path will have to add somewhen down the line. And it is going to be huge, because it will feature links of your closest connections. The impact as a traffic source on big websites might not be as significant in absolute numbers; but you can expect a high quality of that traffic because it comes from a trusted source of recommendation: People who are very likely to think similarly to the user that they are referring to a website.
To Facebook, these pages are a great source of business. Many campaigns booked on Facebook do not lead people outside, but on a fanpage inside Facebook. Of course, Google will want to have a piece of that business, too. And it must be a good position to know that you are running the infrastructure for the management of billions of direct relations between companies and their customers. I doubt if Path will have the potential to add a product like this, but on the other hand, for a company like Google, this might not be the highest priority: Their strategic task must have been to gain back market share in link sharing and defend their number 1 position as the top referrer of traffic to any website. So business (and celebrity) pages might be just a vehicle to gain traffic that can be referred to other sites.
My feeling on this is that when G+ was developed, they were lacking one critical thing that for example Amazon has always displayed: Patience. G+ wanted to launch that one big monster that could compete with Facebook and Twitter right from the start. If they would have been more patient, they could have launched something like Path: Capture a niche (the most valuable one) from Facebook first. Once you have achieved this, you can go anywhere from there. So what I learned from this in 2011: If Facebook will ever be ousted as the biggest kingdom in social networking, it will happen from a competitor that started small. Not from a site that launches as a full social network trying to cover my whole life right from the start.