The Path less travelled | 互联网

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Drew Benvie and Mark Pinsent have been writing their thoughts about new social network Path. I wanted to give it a bit of thought before piling in otherwise I would be just going over the same ground that they have already done.

Path is a new social network that has a number of points of interest to the digerati:

  • It’s an iPhone app – that’s good because the iPhone is pretty hot at the moment
  • It’s got a good user experience
  • It’s a social network
  • It’s about visual sharing
  • It limits the number of contacts that you can have to 50

So what does this all mean?

Facebook isn’t perfect, they’re not as smart as Google and recent history has demonstrated that even Google is fallible. Facebook has a number of weak points:

  • Poor user experience – Take your social media maven hat off for a minute and ask yourself how an average consumer is supposed to do many of the tasks which Facebook is capable of? I do it by always gone through help and I get paid to do this kind of thing. What are the visual cues that separate a page, or a community page from a group? Which is probably why 20-and-30-something males interviewed as part of recent research by IPC Media described Facebook as looking old
  • Privacy – partly by design by Facebook so they can sell advertising inventory on lots of compelling social data. Partly because of social engineering, Facebook more than anyone else has done more than anyone else devalue the concept of ‘friend’
  • Context – Facebook thinks that it is a general purpose social network; a digital Ford Model T. But today the Ford Motor Company sells thousands of variants of each car model and has shares in different brands (currently Mazda and Aston Martin) to appeal to a similarly wide range of customers. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn realised that no one social network can do it all

Path deals with privacy by narrowing down your social graph to 50 people and presumably keeping this content in the deep web rather than easily crawlable for Google. Context is about your closest friends and family. As for user experience, Facebook has set the bar low.

In some ways its not completely new as a concept. It’s a visual social network like Flickr and Flickr also gives you control over who you share your images with. But that facility isn’t used and its not particularly easy to use. Facebook allows you to create lists of contacts, but again its not that easy to use. Email provides complete tailoring of a list, but we get too much already and as the Claire Swire incident showed; very easy to share.

50-connection limit

The 50-connection limit is something that has got a lot of people talking as it changes the perceived dynamics of social networks.

In a typical symmetrical network like LinkedIn, Friendster or Facebook friends are like stamps to be collected. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Ego: particularly in teens who may interpret their friend number as a loose measure of self-validation and popularity
  • The power of loose networks – most experts in network theory claim that having a large loose network tends to be better than having a small close set of connections

In an asymmetric network like Delicious, Twitter or Flickr tend to be networks formed around common interests rather than strictly around relationships. For instance, that could be a relationship with a brand, an expert or a celebrity. I know some of the people who follow me on Twitter, but by no means all 1,648 or so of my followers.

The 50-person limit also has a downside at least from Path’s point of view. Growth is likely to be much slower than normal due to to network effects. Think about this for a moment:

  • I can only have 50 people, so I am unlikely to invite all 50 close contacts (if I had them) because I would need to leave a bit of leeway for new people (admittedly, this assumes that I am at a relatively young life stage)
  • I can’t ‘drop’ someone because that is so much more of a major put-down than de-friending them on Facebook. They were in my inner sanctum, they would have had to do something pretty heinous in order to cast them out into the night
  • When does a girlfriend (or boyfriend) become a sufficient keeper that you invite them to connect on your Path network?

What does this mean for clients | brands?

The first thing I am curious about is how Path will make a profit? What is the clickthrough rate likely to be on adverts vended against the content?

Secondly brand auditing | landscaping | monitoring may be a divisive issue as Path is more akin to private physician networks like Sermo than Facebook in terms of its privacy promise. Snooping would also be difficult because of the visual nature of the content doesn’t lend itself to be processed automatically as easily as text (key word analysis etc).

It may create an artificial bubble of trust: whilst Path content isn’t readily re-shareable, it can be screen shot quite easily and that forwarded on. What this would mean is that if you had content go viral it would take days rather than minutes like it would on Twitter or Facebook.

What it does mean however is that brand experiences shared by people with their networks over Path are likely to carry more impact because of the close nature of the network. So for instance, the word-of-mouth that cycling enthusiast Mark may share about cycling brand Rapha will carry more weight to his nearest and dearest than his wider network.

This means that a brand could have a creeping reputation problem that stays under their monitoring radar until it emerges fully-formed crossing over on to Twitter, Facebook or blog posts.