If you're familiar with Dunbar's number, you know that according to the British anthropologist the average person can only maintain stable connections with approximately 150 people. Take a look at a typical teen's Facebook page and you'll often see a contact count that soars into the thousands. This leads many of us to ponder how the digital world is messing with our historic definition of “friend.”
While most social networks encourage users to expand their connections, a new-ish mobile app called Path is organized around Robert Dunbar's theory. As the service explains on its website, “We tend to have five best friends, 15 good friends, 50 close friends and family, and 150 total friends. At Path, we're building tools for you to share with the people who matter most in your life.”
When the San Francisco-based start-up launched in November, 2010, it allowed a maximum of 50 friends. The recently redesigned app tripled the friend count, encouraging more than one million people to sign up. Path incorporates some of the best features from the most popular social services around: Photo filters like Instagram? Check. Location-based updating like Foursquare? Check. Music sharing like Soundtracking? Check.
Think of the app like a real-time journal for all of the things you're doing, watching, recording and photographing. There is also a cute icon to notify your tiny network that you're going to sleep or that you've just woken up. In fact, well-designed icons make up a good chunk of the Path experience. I doubt I've seen a more beautiful social sharing app in 2011, or ever, for that matter. Not only is Path speedy (iPhone and Android), a nifty little plus sign in the bottom left-hand corner makes it easy to select your update of choice (photo, location, music, text, sleep).
Earlier this week, following Le Web (a big-time technology conference in Paris), I started to notice more of my early adopter friends communicating on Path (and cross-posting to Facebook and Twitter). What intrigued me the most was when my buddy posted this, “If you're not a close friend, don't request to add me on Path. You have Facebook and Twitter.”
Is it possible? A social network for people you actually, gulp, know? I for one am hooked after my brief trial. It feels comforting to manage updates with a few friends versus diving into the non-stop hustle of Facebook. While I dismissed Path and its 50-friend limit when it first launched, the new version is definitely a contender as a social service to watch in 2012, and beyond. Will it ever be able to compete with the hundred-million-plus networks? Maybe not, but there is something to be said for “Small is Beautiful,” especially when it comes to communicating on your phone.