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Learning to love Path

Is this intentionally exclusive, smartphone-centric service the next great social network?

At first, I admired the new version of smartphone social network app Path more than I liked it.

When Path 2 premiered at the end of November, I thought it had one of the prettiest, most clever user interfaces I'd ever seen on any piece of software, for any type of device. I also bristled, however, at the cap it placed on your social network: It let you friend a maximum of 150 people, who were supposed to consist only of loved ones and close friends. The limitation seemed artificial and pushy, and I was skeptical that my loved ones would join up. (My parents, for instance, are still figuring out Facebook.)

So I didn't spend much time with Path. But then a funny thing happened--my wife started using it. A lot.

Path 2 on the iPhone.
Path 2 on the iPhone. Harry McCracken/CNET

Bingo: I had one loved one on Path. She kept asking me if I'd seen a photo or comment she'd left on Path, or something that a mutual friend had posted, and she seemed to be scaling back her activity on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

That was enough to get me intrigued with the new Path all over again. This time, I'm warming up to its notion of a more private, personal social network.

The notion of discouraging members from interacting with gazillions of other people runs contrary to trends elsewhere on the social Web. Facebook, for instance was once insistent about the idea that was it designed only to help you hobnob with people you knew in real life. Now it emphasizes public sharing and is adding features such as Subscriptions, which lets you keep tabs on utter strangers.

And I'm not sure whether my experiences on Google+ are typical, but more and more, most of the people who comment on my posts there are not known to me. Random strangers dive in, say one not-particularly-brilliant thing, and then disappear forever. It's made me meaningfully less enthusiastic about the service.

(Twitter, by contrast, is also full of strangers--but they're strangers who say smart things and hang around.)

I've failed to build a Path network consisting only of loved ones. Most of my relatives who do social networking at all are over at Facebook, and my sister is a Twitter addict. Come to think of it, many people I care about don't own an iPhone or an Android phone, and therefore can't use Path at all.

But I am trying to restrict my Path friendships to people who are, in fact, friends. That gives the service a cozy, friendly feel, which is presumably part of the goal of the 150-friend ceiling. It's Mayberry to the overcrowded, chaotic metropolis that Facebook has become.

The current version of Path feels like what Facebook might be if it were invented by a bunch of smart Silicon Valley types in 2011 rather than by Mark Zuckerberg in his Harvard dorm room in 2004. It's more sophisticated and more mobile, and it lacks all the bloat that Facebook has accumulated over the past eight years. And because it doesn't have all that many members yet, there's no hustle and bustle.

Loic Le Meur has a great post on the service's current appeal:

Path's recent growth isn't about features, though, it's more about people. Facebook and Twitter have become very mainstream, many people have hundreds if not thousands of friends and connections there. Despite Facebook's efforts to add "who you can share to" features most people feel that what Facebook wants more and more is for you to share everything in public. It's the default setting. Path fills that gap for some people, it created a small place where you can hang out online anytime with your close friends and it does a superb job at pinging you all the time about them. And that's okay, since they're your close friends, you do want to hear about them all day long.

For me, the big question is whether Path will capture the imaginations of "normal folks"--by which I mean ones who aren't hard-core enthusiasts, tech pundits such as (ahem) me, and Silicon Valley insiders like Loic Le Meur. Will tens of millions of them sign up? If they do, will the friendship cap preserve Path's small-town feel? Can Path become huge without adding games and apps and automation and other clutter?

No other social network has captured the imaginations of the world's normal folks like Facebook has. That's why I'm still spending far more time there than on Path. If the majority of my loved ones and non-techy pals were to show up on Path, though, I could see it gradually replacing Facebook in my social-networking regimen. I'm not predicting that that will happen--but the mere fact that it doesn't seem wildly implausible says that Path is on the right track.