I’M WATCHING DAVE Morin experience a moment. Actually, a series of moments. Working in front of a glowing computer at 4 a.m. Hunting for the perfect office space. Considering a plate of French toast. Helicopter skiing in Baldface, in Canada. There is even a short film called Cab With Brittany Bohnet, a perfect eight seconds of moody nighttime transit, illuminated intermittently by passing streetlights and the taxi dashboard.
I’ve been enjoying Morin’s moments on Path, the personal network he cofounded and which left beta last November. By uploading photos through the Path app and then annotating them, users are able to share such “moments” with an intimate group of no more than 50 people. Compared to the full-court networking press of LinkedIn or the information cacophony of Twitter, Path looks and feels like a digital whisper shared between actual friends. “We wanted to give people the power to capture the moments of their lives into a stream so personal that you felt you could be yourself,” says Morin.
It is a poignant quest and philosophical dogleg for Morin, 30, a former Facebooker who labored mightily for four years to expand the depth and heft of Facebook’s reach on both the Platform and Connect teams. (Morin was No. 16 on Fast Company’s 2009 Most Creative People in Business list.) And he is an expert in living a digital life out loud — he tweets, Tumblrs, Facebooks, and Flickrs like a champion. (Morin triggered either coos or eye rolls when he tweeted the aerial photos of his romantic proposal to longtime, equally talented girlfriend Bohnet, spelled out in coconuts on a beach in the Maldives. I cooed.)
After Morin left Facebook, he tapped his own personal network of friends — Napster cofounder Shawn Fanning and engineer Dustin Mierau — to develop something new. It was an organized wander. Mobile, Apple style, was an obvious first choice. After some study, they learned that although taking photos is a leading activity on phones, most people keep those photos on their phones and off social networks. “We heard time and time again, ‘Oh, I would never post that, it’s too personal,'” says Morin. “Yet when we asked about them, the photos illustrated these wonderful life stories.”
The trio also looked into the work of network theorist Robin Dunbar and the happiness science of economic behaviorist Daniel Kahneman. “Kahneman talks about two selves — the remembering self and the experiencing self,” Morin says. “How do I feel in my life right now versus how do I feel about my life?” Ultimately, Path endeavored to create a trusted place where people could save iPhone snapshots of their lives in real time and share them with the number of people that was more likely to preserve a sense of personal intimacy. It was a simple idea, hiding in plain sight. Users have responded; more than 3.4 million moments were shared in the first four months that the site was open to everyone. “There aren’t a lot of Internet products that help you decide how you feel about your life,” he says.
This quieter style of network represents a business challenge that Morin has considered carefully. “One of the things you notice with most network businesses is that they end up pursuing a media business model,” he says. In order to make money, they need to grow big and grow fast, adding lots of features in the hopes of adding more people to attract marketers. “But once you increase the scale and density, it decreases the quality and creates a lot of noise.” Path will be focusing less on generating scale, though it matters, and more on adding premium options into the mix. It introduced seven “lenses” — three of which are for sale — at the South by Southwest Festival in March, real-time filters that let users get artsy with their photos. The free high-contrast black-and-white filter called “Ansel” was an immediate hit, as was the sepia-toned “Old Time.” At 99 cents, Old Time provides Path with its first revenue stream. Expect also digital goods that people can give to their friends to comment on their photos. “We’ve learned from social games that people love them.” It’s estimated that the U.S. virtual-goods market will hit $2.1 billion in 2011.
Morin has also made it easier for people to find and add friends from Facebook, and to add the occasional “moment” directly to Facebook if they choose. “It’s about having the option,” Morin says.
For all of Path’s emphasis on intimacy, it has generated a ton of buzz. Mere days after it launched, Google offered a rumored $100 million to acquire the company. To the surprise of many wags in the Valley, the company passed. “My official answer is no comment,” says Morin with a smile. “But I think that one of the unique characteristics of people who worked at Facebook is a desire to build meaning in the world.” (Morin says that Mark Zuckerberg, who remains a friend and informal adviser, supported his thinking.) And though he doesn’t say it, being part of Google’s future social strategy probably wasn’t going to give him the chance to fully explore the company’s potential.
The Google path not taken was memorialized in Morin’s photo stream: “Scheming with Chi-Hua (KP)” was a nod to his recent round of Series A funding with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Index Ventures for $8.65 million, which closed in January. Chi-Hua Chien, a partner at the firm, joined Path’s board last fall. Chien is an avid user of Path and has a recurring special moment — his 3-year-old daughter, Claire, running down the hall to see him when he gets home. It’s a simple moment that Path has enabled him to share with his mother in China, who has limited access to the Internet. She can now experience these moments through Path’s email feature.
I flip through my own moments — a sleeping 5-year-old, a trip to the ER with a mangled finger, dinner with friends, my family collapsing into a laughing pile, a snowman dressed as a Packer fan. I feel happy. It’s hard not to. It is, after all, my life in review. “And I feel I know you so much better because you use Path,” Morin tells me. “Isn’t that a good thing?”