Three ideas lurk behind Path, a new social service that launches Monday as an iPhone app. As CEO Dave Morin explains it, the first two are the products of scientific research. As a former Facebook exec — Morin was responsible for the Facebook platform that supported apps from outside developers — he was drawn to the work of evolutionary anthropologist R.I.M. Dunbar, whose work on the primate neocortex suggested that brain size limits the number of close connections. This applies to grooming cliques among apes and Internet social networks among humans. Dunbar has recently been scientifically frolicking in the anthropological gold mine of Facebook and has revealed his early findings that digitally, as well as in the real world, our species is incapable of managing an “inner circle” of more than 150 friends. That increment became known as “Dunbar’s Number.”
This led Morin, who left Facebook early this year, to conclude that his new startup would put a limit on connections so that users would have “a quality network.” Proceeding on another Dunbar theory — that the rings of our social networks ripple out in factors of three — he and his team created what Path calls The Personal Network. Morin calculates 5 closest friends of relatives in the most intimate circle, fifteen or so who we have regular contact with, and around three times that in the boundary of who is truly trusted. That led him to put a limit of fifty to one’s Path network, all of whom have consented to a reciprocal relationship. Thus posting on Path is not an act of broadcasting or self-promotion, but sharing a moment with someone who really knows you.
The second idea came from Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-winning economist who has studied the nature of memories, particularly their relationship to happiness. Hearing Kahneman speak at this year’s TED Conference led Morin to make Path into “a giving network, not a taking network.” Instead of professional networking or cracker barrel punditry, the purpose of Path would be to capture the daily “moments” that convey joy, particularly when the recipient of those posts knows what they mean to the person expressing them. Morin’s canonical example is sharing with his favored fifty the simple fact that he may be imbibing a hot mocha. “My friends know how much I love mochas,” he says. “So my friends are happy for me.”
This leads to the third idea behind Path. The only way that Morin’s friends and family on Path will learn that he is having a mocha is via a picture snapped on his iPhone and instantly sent to his network of 50 or less. Morin says that later on, Path will support actual communication via language — maybe Twitter-like updates or videos, or links or whatever. But for now, the sole means of expression and communication is via photo images. Users will thumb-scroll through an iPhone feed of images of moments captured by their friends, tagged by location, object, and human subject. “You can literally see your friend’s lives through their eyes,” says Morin.
In practice, this constraint may spur a burst of creativity as people strive to depict the range of their emotions, social situations, frustrations, and celebrations solely through a series of captured images. Meanwhile, Path itself will gather an impressive database of things, people and locations that its users find interesting, as they upload photos that otherwise would never have been shot. (Morin is vague about how the company will utilize this data, but gives the usual privacy assurances that no private information will go outside one’s network.)
Path rolls out with an impressive pedigree: the resumes of employees — include key positions at Apple as well as Facebook, and its backed by an all star cast of angel investors. Morin’s co-founder and chairman is Shawn Fanning, the creator of Napster. (A third co-founder is Dustin Mierau, author of Macster, the Mac Napster client.) Business plan? Morin says that rather than court intrusive advertising, the business plan is to offer premium services.
As the service evolves, Path team is open to tweaks and adjustments. Even the current limit of fifty connections is not sacrosanct. “But we’ll never, ever go with more than 150,” says Morin. Dunbar, and our neocortexes, would undoubtedly approve.
So what are your thoughts? What do you think about quality relationships as opposed to impersonal connections? Is social media truly for deep, meaningful relationships, or more for passing encounters of networking?