Why Path Will Survive Its Privacy Scandal: Great Design

Making an Increasingly Unwieldy Social Graph Useful Again

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What should we share online? What data should be public? What should be private? These are the very questions at the core of the social app Path, which unwittingly became the center of a scandal last month when a developer blogged that he "noticed his entire address book was being sent to Path" without his consent. That opened up a much-needed debate about the data safety in mobile apps, but the irony here is the company that was initially singled out is all about creating a private and closed environment for their users.

I sat down with Dave Morin, the cofounder and CEO of Path, to discuss what his company has done since to respond. "When that happened, we immediately responded and put an opt-in on our iPhone app and we deleted all user data from our servers. We're also announcing next week that we're hashing data or encrypting it," he said. "And we're getting engaged in the conversation with other leading app makers as we do feel privacy is a big issue. The rules around mobile and data are changing quickly and we want to be honest and transparent with our users."

Mr. Morin added that the company also joined TRUSTe and will have them audit their products for privacy compliance. This alone puts Path leagues ahead of many mobile apps out there. I, for one, think Path will weather this storm and succeed, mostly because it's become so useful to me in curating my own increasingly unwieldy social graph. Some background:

Path was launched in February 2010 and has over 2 million users with 70% of those signing in weekly. Described on their website at "the smart journal that helps you share life with the ones you love," the app limits the number of friends you can connect with to 150. "We looked at the number of favorites people have on their phones, and the number is pretty small. We wanted Path communities to actually include only people you want to share with often," Morin told me. "Lots of families use Path to share baby photos and check in, and we have a lot of CEOs using it. We're like the dining-room table, if you've had dinner with them or their photo is on your fridge, they'd be your friend on Path."

A spokesperson for the company also explained, "research from Oxford Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dubar suggests that 150 is the maximum number of relationships the human brain can sustain at any given time." Interestingly, I'm in the process of planning a party and my attendee list is at 148. On Path, I have 48 friends, so I'm almost at my limit for real friends but I'm in the market for some more virtual pals.

If my 48 friends are a sub-segment of average users, there is a very high caliber and large volume of digital influencers on Path. Omitting names, my Path posse of 48 includes founding Facebookers, Apple-types, venture capitalists, a couple of startup CEOs, a foodie, technology reporters, a wine guru (guess who?), several writers, a gallery owner, a web talk-show host, several fashionistas, a surfer, a whiz kid, a social-media artist, a film director and me.

Another aspect of the app I enjoy is that Path integrates filters into the provided camera functionally. Some are free and higher-end filters similar to those found on Instagram or Hipstamatic can be purchased for $.99. Very smart, let's hope the team can build a revenue stream from micro billing and keep the app relatively advertisement-free.

Without ads and clutter from unknown friends, my small circle of Path friends posts images suited for a gallery show. Controls allow you to note who you're with when you take photos, integrate with Google maps, provide musical suggestions, offer a thought bubble and toggles from sleep to awake mode. Emoticon-like icons can also be integrated into your posts.

In the last day, one friend visited the Central Park Boathouse, another artfully posted a glass of red white that received 16 smiles, and one attended a Korean BBQ and snapped a photo that garnered 24 smiles and one heart of exuberance. For that happy viewer, if the image was tagged, a quick tap could take them to a Google map with a restaurant listing too. From what I can tell, it appears cofounders Dave Morin and Dustin Mierau are taking the right steps with privacy issues. From a product perspective, they're definitely on the right Path.

Porter Gale is a marketing consultant, speaker, writer, and former VP of marketing at Virgin America. She's currently working on a book called Your Network is Your Net Worth for Atria Books. Send me a friend request on Path or a tweet at @portergale with any questions or comments.
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