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A Path the world isn't meant to see

Buoyed by marquee founders and investors yet dealing with the tech industry's highest of expectations, photo-sharing service Path.com has launched. The outlook? Unclear.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
7 min read
Path.com has quite the vantage point from its San Francisco offices. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--The offices of Path float 40 stories above the city in one of the upper floors of a residential tower just a block away from the waterfront, where the hallmarks of a young start-up--fridges of Red Bull, whiteboards awash in colorful scribbles, the glow of massive Mac desktop monitors--colonize what would normally be coveted apartment space for one of San Francisco's most financially fortunate. There's a balcony with sweeping views of the Bay Bridge and the waters underneath, where on this sunny fall afternoon a lone kayaker in a bright-orange craft flits around uncomfortably close to industrial boat traffic.

Safely tucked away from the chattering, eavesdropper-friendly office spaces, neighborhood coffee shops, and bars where most San Francisco start-ups take root, Path's headquarters have a feel of forced remoteness and above-the-fray distancing. This is appropriate for Path itself: launching tonight after a deliberate attempt to stay in "stealth mode," Path is a mobile application that tries to carve a space for itself in the increasingly public world of share-everything social media by offering a service that its founders say is intended to be thoroughly private and intimate.

Path co-founder Dave Morin is best-known for having orchestrated and marketed the launch of its developer platform. Dave Morin/Facebook

Before hearing about Path it helps to know a bit about its founders. One co-founder, Shawn Fanning, became a poster child for the Digital Age well over a decade ago as the founder of Napster (no, not the co-founder who was played by Justin Timberlake in "The Social Network") and the other, Dave Morin, was one of Facebook's most visible employees several years ago as he oversaw the launch of its groundbreaking developer platform. When Morin departed Facebook in January, leaving behind a far bigger, more powerful company than the one he'd joined late in 2006, he said he'd be working with Fanning on a new start-up. At the time, they didn't know what they'd be doing; they toyed with a few possible products before settling on the final idea.

So this is Path: it's a sort of hybrid of the mobile photo-sharing apps that have generated such a craze lately, and the private, on-the-fly group messaging services that promise an alternative to communicating in a huge social network. You share photos in a stream called a "path," but you can only share your "path" with a total of 50 people, and those 50 people must be pulled out of your iPhone's contact list. (Android and BlackBerry versions are on the way.)

You can tag each photo--with people, with a place, and with a "thing" in it. The entire item is what Path calls a "moment." There are some unique quirks to the service: the list of contacts you see in Path isn't the people with whom you share your "path," but the people who have opted to share with you, a marked (if potentially confusing) contrast to the voyeuristic world of Twitter. When you tag a "thing" in a Path "moment," you can type in anything but are also offered a list of other things that have been tagged nearby as well as at similar hours of the day.

On this mid-afternoon in early November in the offices of a start-up with some of the sweetest views that San Francisco has to offer, Path tags that pop up include "epic sunset, hacking, Guy Fawkes, blue skies, launch night."

All in all, it's like a more tightly restricted Instagram, minus the artsy camera filters, but Morin insists that this kind of structure--tag this way but not that way, share with only this small group--isn't forced. Rather, he says, he's tapping into a natural desire to share details of the intimate and mundane that blossom early in a social-sharing service's lifespan--think back to the heyday of LiveJournal, or the community of photographers who flocked to Flickr, or the pre-celebrity era of Twitter--which typically erode as the amount of public content escalates, and along with it, the noise. He hopes that the unusual structure of Path will mean that those moments of quality and intimacy don't degrade.

"We were really interested in sort of trying to figure out a way to create something intimate on mobile that all consumers would like," Morin explains on the afternoon when CNET has dropped by for a demonstration of the still-stealthy Path. The 30-year-old presents his new company in a way that's nuanced and almost academic in comparison to the big, isn't-this-awesome onstage pitches he used to make to developers and press for Facebook Platform. He's sitting in a sparse conference room decorated only by two sunflowers floating in flat, square vases on the table.

The soaring views of San Francisco Bay are out the window to his left, but behind a pair of wire-frame glasses, his vision is focused, undistracted, on the iPhone 4 in his hands. Scrolling through the Path app, he talks about philosophy and sociology, the books and research he's read, and the observations that he gleaned from his choice perch at Facebook that, oftentimes, even the millions of users themselves may not have realized.

"A lot of what we've built at Path is based on two peoples' research, Robin Dunbar and Daniel Kahneman," Morin said, name-checking the anthropologist of Dunbar's-number fame as well as the Nobel-laureate psychologist whose work in "hedonistic psychology" offered new insights into our perceptions of happiness. "We have two selves, a 'remembering' self and an 'experiencing' self, and they both are happy in different ways," Morin explains. "We've tried to build a product for both selves...there's a lot of experiencing in this version but there'll be a lot of remembering coming in the future."

The distraction-soaked Web may prefer a simpler description, like that Path is a way to share photos of your cat with the people who actually would be interested in seeing photos of your cat. "I love mochas. My friends know that. My close friends know how much I love going to The Grove and having mochas," Morin says, referring to the mini-chain of coffee and sandwich shops that freckle San Francisco's caffeine-friendly landscape. "That moment on the broader social Web is probably not that interesting." The challenge, of course, is dealing with the immunity that has set in for millions of people who can no longer see a reason why their photographs of cats and mochas shouldn't be public. Convincing people that they need something when it isn't immediately evident isn't easy.

"If users want to share their photos with other networks, if they want to put them on Tumblr or Twitter, they're perfectly welcome to and we'll likely build those interfaces. They're not in version one, but we'll likely build them in," Morin said. He pauses and smiles. "We don't want to stop those people."

Missing from the room that afternoon is Fanning; he's in New York, where Morin had been as well until the prior day. The former Napster founder keeps a low profile, occupying "sort of a chairman role" and not making many appearances surrounding Path's launch, Morin said. Instead, taking his place in the conference room with Morin is Matt Van Horn, the company's vice president of business development. Eventually, they say, they want to put together a revenue strategy of premium features and possibly brand partnerships, but for now that isn't the priority.

"I'm not doing day-to-day business deals, per se, but right now I'm kind of doing anything, from anything related to fundraising to business operations to recruiting to marketing strategy, but relationships-wise--working on that stuff," Van Horn said.

Given Fanning's and Morin's tight connections in Silicon Valley, Van Horn's job has probably been made a bit easier. The company has raised a seed funding round of $2.5 million from Baseline Ventures, Index Ventures, First Round Capital, Betaworks, the Founders Fund, and a marquee list of angel investors like Saleforce's Marc Benioff; former Facebook execs Matt Cohler, Dustin Moskowitz, and Chris Kelly; Digg founder Kevin Rose; actor Ashton Kutcher; Drop.io founder Sam Lessin; and FriendFeed founder Paul Buccheit.

It's on the verge of moving into new office spaces, too, to another nearby tower with waterfront views. It's a bi-level office space; at 14 employees, they won't fill it up at first, but say there's room for a year or two's growth.

They say they want to be set up for the long haul. "I think we're building toward the trend," Van Horn says. "In 2013, there'll be more mobile Internet users than desktop Internet users." Morin jumps in and talks about how he aims for "slow growth," for giving the company and the community that they hope will bolster it some room to breathe, to unfold, to carve out its own path. Facebook itself, after all, had its roots in the austere, minimalist, and highly restricted before Morin's project, the Platform, flung the social network's meshwork of connections open to the Web at large.

"Every choice we've made has been intentional to build a 30-year brand," Morin says, pointing out the fact that they went through "a lot of negotiations" to buy the domain Path.com from a real estate developer who'd owned the domain for well over a decade.

They don't know what things will be like in 30 years, of course, or even 30 days. But here is this moment, for Path, right now: the people are a prominent founding team, big-ticket investors, and a community that has yet to form. The place is a highly competitive market flush with existing competitors, future imitators, and the temptation to cash out early rather than fight for lasting success. The "thing" that's taking over this moment, meanwhile, is the pervasive sense of being watched.

Beginning at a highly visible vantage point at the top of a tower dozens of stories above the world capital of digital media, the path of Path is paved with expectations. And, the doors back into stealth mode now firmly shut behind them, the company's founders don't have the luxury of keeping their own "path" restricted to 50 people.