Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On The Wrong Path (2.0)

Path just re-launched itself with its 2.0 app and visually, it's nothing short of stunning. It's almost perfectly executed from the textured red icon and splash screen to the opening screen: your path. Just one red + button at the bottom left of the app flings out six different things you can add to your path: a photo, a person, a location (AKA a check-in), what music your listening to, random thoughts, or the times you go to sleep and wake up.

They've borrowed--and in some case just lifted outright--design cues from the recently released Facebook and Gmail apps: tapping a list icon in the upper left slides the main screen off to the right and brings up Settings and other things, while tapping the upper-right Friends button slides the Path screen off to the left, revealing friends and ways to manage them. You can also swipe left or right to accomplish the same tasks.

But enough about the beautiful interface. I want to focus on the total pivot they've made from private to public. You see, Path 1.0 started out as a mobile photo sharing app with only your 50 closest friends. It was private. Why 50, you ask? Research someone had done suggested that we have somewhere between 50 and 150 "really close" friends--friends we feel comfortable sharing very personal things with. All the rest are just acquaintances, co-workers, or otherwise not our true friends. How many of these types of true friends can you think of right now? Your number is probably well below 50.

In the old Path, you could post a moment like "Nervous at Home" or "Bowling with Veronica at AMF Lanes". In other words, "Home" was arbitrary; it could be anywhere. It wasn't pinned to a map. Same with "Walking the dog at the park" ... no GPS coordinates required.

Path 2.0 changes all of that, and it really ticks me off. Now, if I want to post that I'm at home, I get to choose a location on a map. This is the experience that raised my eyebrow: I typed in Home and pressed Search... around me, all sorts of "Home" locations started popping up. My best friend lives one block down from me, and to my great surprise, I saw exactly where his "Home" was located. Thing is, he doesn't call it Home. He actually put his name on the house, but kind of stylized. If his last name were Jones, you'd see it on the map as "Joooooones House". Right there on the map for all to see! There were lots of others, too.

And that's when I discovered the next problem with this 2.0 release: unlike the previous version of Path, which required you to actually know these "loved ones" (as Path calls them) you were adding, this version of Path lets you add anybody. Lonely? Want to add an alibi to last night's events? Just tap the Person button, then start typing in a name. I added some guy named Jasun (I know Jason with an "o" but not with a "u")... who is a Path user I've never met.

Why am I up in arms about this? Simple: I'm not a privacy nut, but I see the value in valuing privacy if that makes any sense. Facebook has been largely responsible for eroding our privacy for about the last eight years.  In that time, we've watched as it has opted us into making our profiles public, presenting so many privacy settings and tweaks that we just give up and click "Accept Changes" whenever there's a new privacy change, we've wondered why they implemented Beacon, a feature which tracked your purchases at select retailers online and shared them in your news feed (this feature was later pulled due to user outrage) and Path was the exact opposite. It was the antithesis of Facebook: closed, private. Secure. Trusted.

Now, it's busting wide open and basing all its changes on "Your trust in Path..." People do not seem to be satisfied sharing intimate moments with "loved ones" as Path would like you to call them. No, instead you can post those moments to Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and now with the 2.01 update, Tumblr. Intimate moments become sanitized to "every other type of moment" you're sharing on every other network on the internet.

They've expanded the reach from 50 to 150 loved ones. Think about this for a moment. Do you really have 150 loved ones? Come to think of it, do you really have 150 friends close enough that you'd like to share the most private of moments with? The answer for most of you is "no." Very few have that many people in their lives that they feel comfortable sharing private information with. Case in point: Ladies: how many people in your circle of friends do you have that you feel comfortable sharing your Sunday morning, no-make-up, wake-up face with after your kids brought you breakfast in bed and you're in your jammies? Exactly. You can probably count them on one hand, maybe two. Moments like those are worth sharing with grandparents, family, close friends... but not Facebook or Twitter, for example, where many of your "friends" on those network may not be really all that meaningful to you in real life.

So Path, once the hero of privacy, the antithesis of Facebook, has in turn gone the other direction and become yet another "me too!" photo and life/thought sharing service. It's letting you add more friends--and STRANGERS if you want--to your network; you must now geo-locate your ass if you want to add a location; and they've eliminated the action verb of what you're doing, instead opting for a Facebook and twitter and "everyone else"-like text box where you can tell everyone on Path "what's on your mind?" I mean, this is literally copying Facebook's question word-for-word.

Path has essentially become Facebook light in a world where people could really use a network that values privacy over growth. Then again, this is a Silicon Valley start-up, and the product is free. If I had to guess, Path's investors are pushing them to grow faster because they weren't growing fast enough with their closed, private structure and their 50 friend limit.

I get angry at all this, but I have to say that I haven't really used Path all that much, really... I mean, who has?

What do you think of the changes?