Flea Market Memories

When Path debuted to the world, it was billed by founder Dave Morin as an intimate social network meant for sharing the most personal and meaningful moments of our lives with our closest friends and families. This cozy circle was once limited to 50 connections, then later expanded (controversially) to 150, and may eventually grow to 500 or more.

In this way, Path was the anti-Facebook. The big blue social network had long since blossomed into a public sharing behemoth, bringing all the privacy concerns that go along with it. For the few who used the app, it became a family photo album and virtual town hall. Morin’s current vision for the company couldn’t be any more different.

As we’ve documented, Path has been struggling to find traction among Western users. With 23 million global users as of January, the company is popular in Southeast Asia and largely irrelevant in the Western world. More importantly, its monetization mechanism – in-app purchases and subscription sticker packs – is aimed at this international audience.

Late last week, Path announced a radical departure from the private memory archive concept upon which it was built: Ephemeral messaging. The company announced the change in a service section FAQ, of all places, writing:

As of June 11th, anything sent through Path messaging became “24 hour ephemeral”. This means that all messages are automatically removed from our servers 24 hours after being sent, including any old messages.

This does not mean all messages will disappear from your device after 24 hours. A limited number of messages downloaded from our servers will be kept on your device until you log out, uninstall, or update to a new version of Path.

Path goes on to clarify that this does not apply to user timelines, only to the company’s messaging sandbox. Nonetheless, it’s a user experience that seems substantially at odds with the concepts that attracted the company’s users to the service. Rather than a place to have intimate and lasting conversations, Path is now attempting to be somewhere to share fleeting, potentially irreverent moments.

And as we’ve discussed in the past, messaging and particularly photo-sharing are among the most valuable commodities in the digital world. It’s the reason Facebook forked over 10 percent of its market cap to acquire Whatsapp. Path, however, is sending these memories up in flames. That it’s doing it retroactively, with no means of a bulk export, is crazy.

For those users wishing to store their memories beyond 24 hours, Path punts on the issue, sending users to other apps for their recordkeeping, writing:

If there are any specific messages you would like to keep permanently, you’ll want to scroll back through your message threads and save them….

On iOS [and similarly, Android] devices, you can save both photos and video messages to your Camera Roll… It is not possible to save voice messages…

Individual text messages can be copied to your clipboard and pasted into another app. Series of old messages (e.g. text, maps, stickers, etc) can be kept by taking a screenshot.

It’s unclear how this update will attract more users to the Path or help the company better monetize the ones they have. Ephemeral messages have already gone from a unique product, available only on Snapchat, to a common feature now included on a variety of standalone communications platforms. The feature will soon be available in iMessage (in iOS 8) and on Facebook via Slingshot.

With ephemerality almost fully commoditized, the feature is unlikely to send users flocking to any new service. It may be nice to have for some current Path users, but it’s likely to anger many more, given the inherent contradiction with the app’s heretofore identity. Moreover, no ephemeral communication app has shown an ability to meaningfully monetize this feature.

The average Facebook user is worth $98 per year to the company. On Twitter, that figure is $110. In both cases, revenue is generated almost entirely via advertising. Snapchat has yet to monetize, or prove that it has any ability to do so via it’s disappearing messaging platform.

I was pretty hard on Path last month, questioning the company’s ability to deliver meaningful product innovation and a means of justifying the company’s multi-hundred million dollar valuation. At the time, a company spokesperson suggested that I reserve judgement until Morin and his design-minded team roll out the exciting new product vision they’d been heads down working on for the last year.

If ephemeral messaging is the secret weapon on which Path is banking its future, things are even worse off inside the company than many in the Valley ecosystem already feared. It increasingly seems like Path not only doesn’t know “who it is,” but also that the company doesn’t know “who it wants to be when it grows up.”

If we’ve learned anything from the great unbundling occurring across the mobile landscape, it’s that users like simple services and, even more so, they like to know what they’re going to get from an app or platform. For that reason, Path can’t be a place for sharing both lasting memories and fleeting moments. It’s a whiplash-inducing experience that leaves users to question how to categorize the app.

Path can’t try to be everything to everyone. But it’s at risk of being nothing to no one if it doesn’t develop a clear identity. For some, that’s already started.

[Image via InvernoDreaming Flickr]

  1. Path
    Quality Social Networking
    Follow on AngelList

    Path brings people closer together. Guided by the belief that mobile technology will fundamentally change the cultural, social, and economic landscape, Path focuses on simplicity, quality, and privacy to reinvent how you interact with the people, places, and things in your life.

    1. Chris Sacca
      Past Investor
    2. Ashton Kutcher
      Past Investor