Path's New Search Engine Is A Social Time Machine

"One thing we've heard a lot from our users is that they'd really like to relive their old moments," says Nate Johnson, Path's VP of marketing. "That need for nostalgia--it's an innate human trait."

This week, Facebook's mobile photo-sharing network Instagram experienced a massive public fallout due to its confusing new terms of service, which sent users into an uproar over privacy issues related to potential advertising practices. On Wednesday, it was fresh in the mind of Nate Johnson, VP of marketing at competing social network Path. "At Path, we really believe that if it's your stuff, it's your stuff," Johnson told Fast Company. "We're not going to publish it in other places. We're not going to do things that you wouldn't explicitly want us to do. Trust is a core part of building a truly great social network."

Trust, in fact, is a central motive behind what (and how much) data you choose to share on any social networks. Long before Instagram, the idea has always been to create a more intimate connection with users, and the driving force of social media--where you share your story through pictures, video, and text--has been nostalgia and memory sharing (with an undeniable hint of narcissism, of course). Even as more services and products become obsessed with the notion of real-time, there's a growing fascination with the trail of shared moments we leave behind, too. It's the reason we've seen a flurry of social products that organize or archive your past--from Classmates.com to Proust to Timehop and Rewind.me and even Facebook Timeline itself. In this vein, today Path launches its own memory search engine to enable users to easily dig through their past. And as Johnson is quick to remind me several times, these memories can seamlessly be imported to Path from Facebook and Instagram.

"One thing we've heard a lot from our users is that they'd really like to relive their old moments," Johnson says. "I'm a firm believer that people feel a need to take a backward glance at their life. That need for nostalgia--it's an innate human trait."

Like searching on Google, search on Path all depends on what queries you plug into the search box, only the data it culls from is from your own personal trove rather than the vast web of knowledge. You can search for queries such as "my Thanksgiving photos" or "my first photo with Ashley," and metadata tied to your photographs or check-ins (timestamps, location, friend tags, and so forth) will help return results. Path will also help by offering search suggestions, from recent holidays to birthdays to frequented restaurants and bars. But as of now, don't expect memory search to be too sophisticated in the intimacy department: Searching for "my first kiss with Ashley," for example, is unlikely to return a result unless a photo was tagged with a comment like "my first kiss."

Path helps people sift through memories not only via search algorithms and suggestions, but also by limiting the amount of shared content to make it more cherished. "As technology has really accelerated the ability to take a million photographs, it's actually become harder to be nostalgic--to put your finger on that exact photograph or moment in time that you created a year ago," says Johnson, who compares the overabundance of shared memories to the current overabundance of music available online. "Back in the day, you'd go to a record store, and maybe you owned 50 albums. Now there this proliferation and availability of music, and I think it makes it more difficult in a way to find the song that's more meaningful to you."

Search is one way to address this issue. As data continues to proliferate, one-stop-engines like Google are perhaps too all-encompassing, and have given rise to niche search networks, such as Foursquare for location or Twitter for real-time news. "You see it with Pair and Avocado for one-on-one networks, and LinkedIn for professionals--this rise of contextual networks," Johnson says. "It does seem logical that there should be context-based search engines too."

In the same sense, just as there's too much data available on search engines, there's becoming too much data being shared on social networks. With products like Path search, the startup hopes to cut through the clutter.

"What we hear anecdotally is that people are getting overwhelmed," says Johnson, who is specific with his criticism. "People are having an incredibly difficult time parsing the volume of stuff that's coming through their Facebook stream."

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