When Path debuted in 2010, founder Dave Morin championed the app as an intimate social network created specifically to share photos and updates with a closed and trusted network of friends. At its launch, Path capped the number of friends a user can have at 50, based on popular anthropological research that suggested humans can only maintain a maximum 150 stable relationships. It didn't last long.
Four years later, the company has changed gradually but considerably. In 2012 Path upped the user limit to 150, and has since rolled out several iterations of the original Path product, including additional external apps like an ephemeral messaging service. Its devoted core of users in the United States are increasingly overshadowed by a booming following in Indonesia. Now Morin, still its CEO, and Path are planning on developing a new suite of apps that focus less on the prospect of an intimate, personal network and more on competing with the large social networks to which it once offered an alternative.
"Did the experiment fail? Maybe," he told BuzzFeed News. "Are we trying to take new approaches to the interface and approach it different ways than we did before? Absolutely. I think that's the big challenge. Trying to match human relationships and human behavior into software, [the] interface is very nuanced [and it's a] very iterative process. It's kind of a conversation with your users, some things work some things really don't. I think we've had it go both ways. I think failure is a big part of life and being human the best thing we can do is keep moving forward."
Morin said the company continues to be committed to preserving the personal, trusted nature of the original vision (something he calls "Path classic"). But today, even though the company continues to tout the intimacy of Path's closed network, which Morin said sees 4 million users per day, and promotes both the app and individual user profiles with the hashtag #thepersonalnetwork, users can now have up to 500 friends (which Morin now believes is the maximum spring of relationships a human can handle according to Dunbar's theory). It's a far cry from the private network Path described upon its launch. In short, Morin's personal network has gotten progressively less personal with every app update.
However, Morin said that widening Path's network hasn't led to a drop in numbers of users in the United States, where the app has a devoted core of users but hasn't quite broken through to the mainstream audience dominated by Facebook, where Morin was an early employee.
And for some of the app's devoted users, Path's decision to be more inclusive has proven frustrating, especially a new feature that encourages users to promote their Path profiles via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. Approximately 18 months ago, (per users requests, Morin notes) Path rolled out the feature which effectively kicks down the door of Path's closed network. A quick search of #thepersonalnetwork on Twitter turns up a slew of tweets that are some variation of the following.
Via the feature, users who have made their Twitter account available to the public can effectively promote their personal Path profiles to anyone who either stumbles upon or searches for the hashtag #thepersonalnetwork. Some users have also inadvertently promoted their profiles by accidentally clicking the 'promote' button located in the 'Find Friends' tab of the app. It's not exactly easy to do, but in testing the feature, BuzzFeed News found that the app automatically selected Twitter without requiring any action on the part of the user. With just one extra click, a user's Path profile can be posted on Twitter for all to see.
On the surface, the promotion feature is only a small change (rectifying the situation is as simple as deleting the automated tweet), but it's also one that seems to chip away at the very foundation of Path's original mission statement.
But Morin said that Path as a company still holds fast to its initial launch mission.
"Our long term vision has always been to be one of the most respected companies in the Internet for quality," he said. "Our first product ... really focuses on delivering happiness to our users through our software and services."
In fact, the "promote" feature, which the company rolled out in 2012, was an answer to one of the most common user complaints in the United States, Morin said.
"Frankly, the hardest pieces of feedback we got in the U.S. was 'I would love if more of our friends were on Path, it's hard to get them to join,'" Morin said. "Building these tools really just helps those people who do desire that more personal space, space without ads, space that they can trust and with the absence of those tools it would be even harder for them to create that space."
Amplifying the promotion features is also a spammy third-party Twitter account dedicated to promoting Path profiles by retweeting both in-app Path tweets (branded with #thepersonalnetwork) as well as personal, manual tweets of photos uploaded to individual users' Path profiles.
Though the promotional account, which was created in Indonesia, isn't owned and operated by the company itself, it is a byproduct of the current iteration of the app that is in a sense encouraging users to branch out of their close-knit group of friends and family and share their profile with strangers.
Morin said he isn't aware that the third-party Twitter account existed and planned on contacting the owner of the account.
While it's not unusual for a social app to change directions based on its user group while struggling to find footing, Path, as its original users know it, is hard to recognize. The Twitter accounts, which only draw attention to users' ostensibly private accounts, embody the core tension of how you hawk something private in the noisy public space of the social web.
Morin, for his part, appears unfazed, telling BuzzFeed News he is hopeful that the new apps (like the company's ephemeral messaging app, Path Talk, which was released earlier in 2014) Path expects to launch later this year will help the company break into the mainstream in the United States. It's an exciting prospect for Path users who're looking for a more inclusive experience with more followers. For Path classic die hards, on the other hand, it seems to be yet another indication that their intimate community is slowly evolving into yet another large-scale social app.