Path may circumvent the family usage problem with its new search feature

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 20, 2012

From The News Desk

Whether you think Path is a totally superfluous social network or not, you have to give co-founder and CEO Dave Morin props for just refusing to give up. (Or, you know, "settle" for a mere $100 million-plus purchase.)

The first version was only used by a few thousand people. So he retooled and launched a new version people loved... until a scandal hit. He weathered that, and Path was growing. In fact, it just hit five million users two weeks ago.

But a big problem has plagued it: Its goal of being the "dinner table" of social media only really works if friends and close families are on it. And for many users they are not.

Every social network has this chicken and egg problem. Facebook found it was most useful when new people connected to at least thirty friends; for Twitter it was less than 20. Path knows that number is ten. But here's the thing: It has to be the right ten people. If it's just ten people you also are connected with on every other social network (my case), there's still not much value there.

I expected Morin to take issue with my recent posts on this. Instead he said, "Your point is excruciatingly valid."

What Path is launching today doesn't solve that problem, but it may cleverly go around it-- for now-- by giving you something Path does that no one else in the social world does right now.

They are calling the new feature "search," but it's a horrible misnomer. For one thing, we've been conditioned to believe that any search box not on Google is total shit. This is not only decidedly better than shit, it's also more than just search. It's really a better version of Facebook's timeline or whatever Twitter is cooking up with its archive.

Path's other long-stated goal is to be the journal of your life. A journal inherently is about the past, not the now, like many social networks. The new Path search engine enables users to go back and relive important memories from the past or discover serendipity they may have missed.

It's organized not around the way an algorithmic robot thinks, but the way you'd recall certain memories. You search for "ski trip," and you'll likely get images that you may not even have tagged as ski related, thanks to meta data like location, weather or time of year.  Even cooler, is the serendipity part. You could be sitting in a Paris cafe and hit the "nearby" key and see all of your friends past Path moments that took place near there.

And if you or your friends aren't very active on Path? Well, this is why Path recently announced a new import feature to pull in updates and images and checkins from Instagram, Facebook, and Foursquare. "Everyone was like 'Why are they doing this?' This is the reason why," Morin says.

This taps into something powerful around digitized memory that people are yearning for right now. We've seen glimpses of it in Twitter and Facebook's sudden recognition that people want to relive the data they've already entered, and even devices like the Memoto life logging camera. Like a far less comprehensive but also less intrusive Memoto, Path search allows you to go back and relive pivotal moments that you may not have realized were pivotal at the time.

The nearby feature is particularly compelling and very different than what's out there now. My husband and I met some 14 years ago at a dive bar in Memphis. Both of us went there all the time, but had never seen each other. How cool would it have been to be able to see-- in retrospect-- how frequently we just missed each other?

Social networks get you when they burrow into the emotional endorphins that underlay your closest and most important relationships. There are a lot of places I can share a picture of my son on his first birthday as it's happening, but no one has quite come at the past in this way. And we love the past. We glamorize the past. All of our social interactions and happiest memories are by definition in the past.

If you think about what made the non-college set love Facebook so much; it wasn't connecting with colleagues online. It was looking up your old high school boyfriend.

Finally, Path isn't hoping its differentiation is merely slicker design or a tighter social circle. It's giving you real differentiation in the product. "We know Path is much better with friends, but in the absence of that, this is something I don't see any other social network doing," Morin says.

In true Path style, the design is part of the magic here. It can't very well just slap on a search box and think people will use it, so it's pre-seeded results that are specifically tailored to your experiences and heart strings. On Morin's own path, the app suggested the first photo he ever took with Menlo Ventures partner and Path-power user Shervin Pishevar. "We hope the UI teaches people how this works," he says.

Of course, Path walks a fine line with a release like this. If it's too powerful, the other social networks could easily ape it. But given the break down in sharing between Instagram/ Facebook and Twitter, a product that pulls together the past across social networks doesn't seem in the offing from one of the giants.

Morin knows Path won't be the next breakout hit like Instagram. But he hopes to be the LinkedIn of the bunch. The site that painstakingly plods along capturing core-- but less viral-- relationships and network effects, as hotter sites and apps come and go. I have no idea if he'll make it, but this new feature certainly gives me a new reason to reengage with Path, just about the time I was ready to give up on it. "Remember that post you wrote on Reid when LinkedIn went public about how long it took and how unappreciated they were?" he said. "My goal is you'll write that about me in ten years."

(For a lot more on what's gone wrong and what's gone right in Morin's journey watch our excellent PandoMonthly chat with him.)