This is part of a series highlighting notable entries and entrants in our 2012 Innovation By Design Awards—Ed.
At launch, Path seemed like the ultimate social network for mobiles. It was as addictive to scroll as Instagram, but richer in actions like Facebook. Then huge issues of privacy came to light, and every techie user I know (the only users I know) jumped ship. But with $40 million in funding and some serious design chops, they’re still iterating a great product.
Namely, with the app’s latest iteration, Path 2.5, they’ve questioned some of the very fundamentals of social media—invites and, for lack of a more encompassing term, pokes.
Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, invites are generally one-button, automated transactions. On LinkedIn, things can get a bit more personal through customized text if you want to really suck up to that potential future employer. But in Path 2.5, you can request to follow friends by writing a brief note (which becomes a makeshift postcard over your profile image) or even recording a message.
Now, I’m not sure that I’ll actually use this more personalized invite tool. (Indeed, depending how you initiate an invite within Path’s UI, you may not even get this option—the one-button invite appears to be a strong legacy feature.) But more than that, a more personal, explanatory invite is something that, as a grizzled social media consumer, may be out of my comfort range. After years of Twitter, am I really ready to write a personalized note explaining why I’d like to keep tabs on an old pal from high school? I honestly can’t say, but I do like that Path is making a design decision in the direction of personability—goading me to be an extrovert rather than a quiet geek, and leveraging their rich, media-chewing backend to enable it.
The second, potentially more watershed feature is what Path calls the "nudge." If you suspect this to be a shameless rip off of the infamous Facebook poke, you’d be entirely correct—which, in turn, will only lead you to ask why Path would bother to steal Facebook’s creepiest feature. Poking is quite intimate, if you think about it. Would you dare poke the opposite sex, or even the same sex, in real life? But the other reason pokes don’t work is that they’re a self-contained activity—you poke someone and, best case scenario, they’ve been poked. What then?
Compare that to Path’s nudge, which replicates behaviors you already do in the real-world. Path’s nudge is not just a more comfortably prudish metaphor, it’s also equipped with some precanned options to elicit a response—like "take a photo!" or "what are you up to?" Nudges are a way to tell someone, not just that you’re stalking them with a finger in the ready, but that you want to know what they’re up to—that you actually give a crap about all those photos they take and status messages they make. (It’s also a clever way for what I suspect to be a waning user base to spur inactive Path users back into action—though oddly, you can nudge "subscribers" who’ve uninstalled Path, and these friends don’t seem to receive these messages through any means. Path doesn’t tell the nudger this point, however, which is one of those crucial design flaws that could hurt friendships through sloppy implementation.)
On the millions of subscribers scale, I’m not sure that Path 2.5 will be any more relevant than previous iterations of the service. But there are some sound design ideas here that could make all of social media an experience that’s a bit more social. We’re slowly inching closer to a world where our virtual interactions have the shadings and range of real life.