So Path has pulled the plug. Its roots were in the “all God’s children gotta start a new social media platform” era around 2010-11, when Google Plus was replacing Google Buzz and Instagram was still mainly an alternative to Hipstamatic and people were just getting the notion that maybe Facebook was a little too big and might not have your best interests at heart. The unique selling point on Path was that it would be limited to 150 friends (the famous Dunbar number) so that you would have actual friends on there, not acquaintances or brands or randoms.
It was a good idea, I suppose, and we dutifully signed right up, but it was tough to get traction – for one thing, everyone was also staying on Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare and Instagram and whatever else, so it just became one more thing to check or cross-post to. For another, Path had some serious privacy issues that made it untenable after a while. And it ran into the same issue as every other app like Peach or Diaspora or app.net (and which Mastodon and micro.blog will soon have to reckon with) – no one seems to be willing to dump Facebook and Twitter altogether. Getting your friends to all adopt this new service is damn near impossible to do; I would migrate my Twitter and Insta presence to micro.blog tomorrow and never turn back except that I can think offhand of maybe maybe three other people who would give it a try as well.
Path was nice, though, at least at first. The pictures all had the “phone cameras suck so let’s filter the shit out of everything” aesthetic in retrospect (it was 2012, there wasn’t any getting around it), it leveraged Foursquare’s database for locations, it was possible to post just a status update, and the whole thing was optimized for mobile at a time when Facebook was incapable of it. All in all, it was a reasonably solid package, and the sort of thing I’d like to need, but it just didn’t work out.
Which is the thing. Right now, I try to push my primary Twitter almost entirely through micro-blog first, with varying degrees of success, and obviously I can’t read other people’s Twitter through that. I’d love to have a private instance of Mastodon and be able to read other people via federation, but that’s an awfully heavy lift. Deep down, the one indispensable social network these days continues to be Instagram, and I’m just waiting for Facebook to fuck it up beyond recognition – and I’m grateful that I’ve never taken step one to integrate them or even provide a way of connecting them (aside from possibly MAC address or UDID logging, in which case we’re all hosed).
But looking at the list of non-Chinese “virtual community” networks, it’s discouraging – Facebook owns four of the five largest and Google owns YouTube. Trying to avoid those two companies is like trying to avoid Standard Oil in the 1890s, or Microsoft in the 1990s – it can be done, but it’s not going to be easy or pretty. I can try to carve my own path with self-hosting and RSS and Signal and the like, but will anybody else come along? Probably not. Is it a social network if there’s no network?