Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Location wars - The Battle for your check-ins

2010 saw Foursquare, the location-based social media network, sweep across the mobile landscape dropping little digital signposts across the map as it went. Near the end of the year, social media mogul Facebook introduced an addition to it's mobile platform by adding 'Facebook Places'; a strikingly similar iteration of Foursquare's check-in system that was linked directly to a user's Facebook account; an attractive point of differentiation for Gen Y'ers already paralyzed by the virus-like proliferation of new social networks.

In mid-November 2010, former Facebook employee Dave Morin launched 'Path'; yet another entry into the world of location-based social media. Path featured an iPhone app and a web portal and was positioned as more of a personal network that featured two major divergences from traditional social media; exclusivity and intimacy.

Both of these aspects of Path are interesting because as far as social networks go, none have really linked any of their developments to actual sociological or anthropological data or theories. Path on the other hand, under Morin's direction, saw fit to incorporate ideas pioneered by prominent social thinkers to create a more personal network based on the sharing of intimate snapshots of one's path through life with only the closest of friends. The idea of exclusivity is rooted in anthropologist Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar's work with primates. By studying the neocortex region of the brain, Dunbar found that it's size actually limits the number of meaningful social interactions one can have to around 150; "Dunbar's number". From this, Morin chose 50 as the maximum number of connections available in Path based on a theory he developed while at Facebook that says that people's social circles ripple outwards by factors of three. A close group of friends and family consisting of about 5 people leads to an extended group of around 15 people which then multiplies by three again to get to 45. This rough outline lead Morin to his eventual limit of 50 friends and a network composed of people close enough to the user that updates are viewed as valuable vs. spam. 

The intimacy factor was spurred on by Morin's interest in the work of Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman. Morin saw Kahneman speak at a TED conference earlier in the year, and was attracted to his ideas about memories and how they were tied to happiness. For Morin, memories in the social network sense of the word meant photos, and this was to be the sole method of communication for users in Path. By uploading photos of where they are and what they're doing, users share the intimate 'moments' of their day with their 'favored 50' and let the relationships between the users themselves determine how the recipients' understanding, connection and shared happiness is affected. Essentially, because you're so close to your favored 50, simply receiving images of the things that matter most to you will easily convey how you're feeling to those who know you best. Morin uses the example of snapping a photo of a warm mug of mocha, "My friends know how much I love mochas,” he says. “So my friends are happy for me.”

So if 50 is the magic number, and photos are the only way to share, then how come Path is quickly becoming the road less travelled?

This is the question that's been on my mind recently. My thinking is this; Foursquare was the first to let users 'check in' to locations and let people know where you are, Facebook's Places was the first check-in app that linked directly to an existing social network, and so Path, with it's minimalist and exclusive nature, should fill a previously empty void, no?

Apparently not. No one I know is using Path on the regular. Heck, most people I ask about it have never even heard of the thing. Why is it that the only quasi-scientifically based social network has been met with such a difficult beginning? Was it timing? Released too soon after both Foursquare and Facebook's Places to be differentiated in the marketplace? Or was it that in reality, people just want to shout from rooftops, not concerned so much about who hears them, but rather with the mere fact that they're able to yell. It's quite possible that Path was released at a time when our relatively new fascination (and addiction) to social media has left us on the rising side of a steep curve of interest--one that will likely correct itself just as quickly as it was formed. It will be interesting to see in the next 6 months if Path finds traction with users who have been jaded by the ubiquity of status updates and the ongoing stream of check-ins. Many experts see social media moving towards a trend of amalgamation and simplification, and so if twitter's 140 characters are the short-hand blog, then might Path's photo stream be the new Facebook wall? After all, if a picture's worth a thousand words, then Morin's got 860 reasons why people should switch from sharing tweets to moments.

To my mind, each network serves somewhat of a different purpose, yet we only have so much time and interest to devote to being social. Will users from Facebook and Foursquare check-out of their past networks in favour of the more intimate Path? Or as we reach the peak of the curve--the point of social media saturation, will the status and fame associated with being the mayor of 'Bus Stop #50045' trump the value of a shared intimate moment?