The Social Network That Stole ChristmasS

Imagine a social network that combines the voyeurism of Facebook with the visual intimacy of Instagram, the real-time newsreel of Twitter with the exclusiveness of a backyard barbecue. It exists. It's Path. And over the past few weeks it's forever changed how I see my own little slice of the world. It's going to be huge.

Path is a small social network that's been around since November 2010. Originally the idea was to limit users' networks to no more than 50 people. Everyone basically ignored it. But then it opened up the gates a bit this past November, allowing people to add up to 150 friends. It also rolled out a new interface. And suddenly it caught fire. But the key wasn't that it expanded to let you include more people. It was, conversely, that it's new design became more intimate. Path is the interface of intimacy.

You fire it up, and see nothing but core updates from the people you care about. Photos, the songs they're listening to, the places they are. As you scroll through a timeline, you can stop and blow up each person's moment, or update, full screen. You can comment on it, or leave a little emoticon (including a frown, which frees you up from having to "like" bad news) in lieu of a comment.

You can also go into someone's Path—which is a lot like a Facebook timeline, but without all the third-party junk and ads. There's a real-time aspect to it, fostered by ambient awareness and subtle animations—like the way it automatically posts your location when you move from one place to another, or the ticking of seconds after you post an update, or the way friends' comments appear the instant they are posted. Everything is embedded in the app itself. Nothing takes you away, off-site. And it's all (for now at least) deeply personal. There tend to be no messages and no agendas. Scrolling through Path feels like diving into someone's life.

The Social Network That Stole Christmas

A lot of that is because Path has figured out how to get people to post personal things. It turns out, the key to intimacy is just knowledge. Path pulls that off by allowing you to see who looks at your posts.

Facebook and Google Plus and others have spent so much energy on privacy. They've spent so much effort developing controls that let you limit who can see your updates. And yet Path seems have nailed good privacy controls by going the other way. Instead of focusing on limiting who within your network can see what, it just shows you who looked. Combined with its small size, that's really powerful.

Every time someone peers in at you, the app relays a message that reads "Mat visited your Path." Every time someone checks out one of your photos, or reads a status update, that's displayed too. You always see who looked at what. This one queer action—showing who is paying attention to you—has the odd effect of making the space feel like a safe environment to share things. It's like making eye contact, but time shifted.

This Christmas, it seemed to me that Path hit a tipping point, at least here in San Francisco with the social set I tend to follow. After version 2.0 came out in November, the same group of people that I've watched swarm first Twitter, than Tumblr, and then Instagram in years past are now all suddenly all over Path. If history is precedence, I think Path is likely set to explode as well.

Over the holidays it was filled with intimate moments. Sneak peaks into my friends' lives. Meals and gatherings and outings. Timestamps showing when they went to bed Christmas Eve, and when they awoke on Christmas morning. Photos of crumpled wrapping paper and exhausted children, that people aren't always comfortable sharing on wider networks.

The Social Network That Stole Christmas

Facebook exploded on colleges, thanks to the ability to facilitate two way communications. Twitter exploded at South by Southwest, thanks to its ability to amplify one to many messaging. Instagram exploded last year during a snowstorm, thanks to its ability to make everyone a documentary photographer. I think Path had a similar breakout moment over the holidays. And that's thanks to its ability to share, and encourage, intimacy.

And the holidays are all about intimacy. Yet while those moments are lost in the cacophony of Twitter and Facebook, on Path they stand out.

You're not going to find as many people in there. And that's the point. Path isn't cluttered with self-promotional links or YouTube videos of sneezing cats. You're not going to see plug in games. And that's also the point. You're not going to see the glurge and hurge of illiterate rage and hash tag garbage. There's no bitching about not getting an iPad for Christmas. There's no call to re-post this as your status. No obnoxious comments from your hyper-political third-cousin twice removed. There's no tiresome, turgid competition for the best status updates as one-liners, or increasingly drunken series of 25 photos from last night's party.

The Social Network That Stole Christmas

In its place is private conversation. A few photos. Maybe a video. A location. A very small look at your friends' lives. A glimpse into the things they aren't sharing elsewhere. It is purely personal. And the thing is, I never realized that I needed that. But I do.

That only became apparent to me after the holidays rolled around, and I wanted to slough off everything but my friends and family. I wanted to connect with them, and them only, and see what was happening in their lives. I wanted to see the things they loved. Perhaps it is because the Internet has trained me to traffic in voyeurism, but I wanted to share in their intimate moments. And I wanted to show them mine as well.

Facebook and Twitter and even Instagram can be so cluttered that finding those moments of intimacy requires hunting. Worse, all are so very brand-heavy now. All of them have been inundated by enterprises that desperately want our attention; that want to pull us away from the network itself to read a story, or watch a video, or look at an image, or play a game. They don't want us here, they want us there.

Path, on the other hand, just wants you to visit. It wants you to pull up a chair. To sit down. To get comfortable.

The big knock on Twitter, in its early days, was that it was simply a place for people to post what they were eating for lunch. And who cares about that? Who cares? How asinine. How banal.

Well, sometimes I care. It depends entirely on who is eating, and not at all what they are having. Yes, that may be banal, but what moments in life that truly matter are not? Over the last two weeks on Path I saw, again and again, the triumph of banality.

And it's so very beautiful.