I’ve started to write a weekly column, Online Anthropologist, for Smart Company. Here’s the latest…
Will introducing interactions that are more real-world help social networks increase engagement?
I’ve always, quietly, been a fan of social network Path. When it launched back in 2010 I wrote a post highlighting its features, whilst sitting squarely on the fence and making no predictions one way or another about its chances of success.
Since then, Path has gradually introduced more and more features, I’ve managed to persuade a few fellow nerds to join, and as a result I’ve found myself using it more and more.
Path became part of my personal experience of the fragmentation of social media. It’s the network I turn to when I don’t want to broadcast my life to anyone who wants to stalk me (twitter) or a bunch of people I didn’t like all that much back in primary school (Facebook).
Then in February of this year there was that well documented privacy issue, for which Path took the fall before it emerged that everyone else was at it too. Too late, the damage was done and Path copped the majority of the flack. Whether they have any chance of success after that debacle remains to be seen: they are, after all, still claiming ‘over 2 million users’ – the same figure they claimed back in February when the privacy story broke – and that’s hardly the hockey-stick growth figures that, say, Pinterest has been able to claim, or Instagram can boast.
But Path remains an innovator. The user interface was always one step ahead of the competition: a mobile-only environment, it takes the best of Facebook and photo-sharing platforms like Instagram and rolls them together. It’s super-intuitive to use, and super-slick to look at. Now, with Path 2.5, Path is starting to redefine the way we interact on the social web.
How so? Well, there are a couple of new features that are changing the game. There’s something that Path calls the ‘nudge’. Sound familiar? Sound a bit like Facebook’s slightly dodgy-sounding ‘Poke’? Well, it IS a bit like a Poke. But it’s better than a Poke, because where the Poke button is a kind of disembodied, vaguely sexual verb that both looks seedy on the page, and feels seedy to use, the nudge is altogether more sophisticated and grown-up. See, unlike the Poke’s school-boy dig in the ribs, it actually asks some pre-populated questions, prompting the recipient to take action. So you can ‘nudge’ your mate to ‘take a photo!’, or ask ‘where are you?’ or ‘what are you up to?’:
What’s so cool about that? Well, aside from giving users a way to get in touch with their friends without a) having to think of something to say or b) having to deliver a creepy ‘poke’, it makes the social experience that bit more social – that bit more real. After all, you wouldn’t, in real life, try to get someone’s attention by jabbing at them with a pointy finger.
Of course the other cool thing, from Path’s viewpoint, is that the Nudge is a way for them to get their user base to do the work of re-engaging with lapsed users on their behalf. Good move for a network that feels like its starting to stagnate.
The second game-changer is the invite function. Path have played with theirs so that unlike on Twitter or Facebook, you can now write a personalized note asking someone to join the network so you can hook up. You can even use Siri (I’m doing this on an iPhone) to record a message.
Hardly a game-changer, you might say: but think about it. When combined with the nudge, the invite makes the virtual interactions in Path that little bit more nuanced than those on other networks, that little bit more shaded rather than black and white. And this makes it a social network that is a little bit more human, a little bit more usable and, hopefully, a little bit more engaging. Whilst I’m not 100% sure the introduction of these cool new features will be enough to reverse Path’s fortunes, I AM sure that we will start to see more of these kinds of features on the bigger networks. It’s great user experience design, and something that businesses should both keep an eye open for when it starts to become more commonplace in social networking, and take note of when designing their own web properties.