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Off the beaten Path: would you pay a subscription fee for an ad-free social network?

Off the beaten Path: would you pay a subscription fee for an ad-free social network?

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path 3.0
path 3.0

Path is introducing privacy controls and a new subscription model today as it tries to recapture the intimacy that helped the niche social network stand out when it launched — and to generate the revenue necessary to turn it into a viable business. Path 3.2, which comes out today on Android and iOS, adds new controls for sharing to individual friends and to a user-defined "inner circle." For those who want unlimited access to the network’s whimsical library of virtual stickers for adorning messages and comments, along with a more limited range of camera filters, Path will begin selling monthly and annual subscriptions to its applications for Android and iOS.

Subscriptions will sell for $1.99 a month on Android, $4.99 for three months on iOS, and $14.99 for a year on both platforms. It’s an effort to generate the kind of recurring revenues that have led "freemium" services like Dropbox and Evernote to billion-dollar valuations. And it plays on the enthusiasm for stickers that has made messaging app Line a sensation in Japan. The initial offering includes stickers and photo filters; in the future, users will get new options around customizing the look of their Path, the company says.

A surge in users — and controversy

The emphasis on subscriptions represents a gamble for a company that has seen a surge in its number of registered users this year, even as it has been pilloried over the unwanted texts and robocalls that it used to acquire them. Path says it has 20 million users, bolstered by pre-installation deals with carriers around the world, though the company won’t say how many of them use the app each month. Nor has it released sales figures for its current lineup of sticker packs and filters, which sell for $0.99 to $1.99. Subscription fees represent a way for Path to stay free of advertising, one of the company's core aims since it launched in 2010.

At the same time, Path is asking people to pay for the kind of virtual goods they can already get from Facebook for free., which launched as a paid, ad-free alternative to Twitter, mustered only 100,000 users in its first year. Path says many more perks are coming to subscribers, but why launch with features that roughly mirror free ones found on the world’s most popular social network?

New controls for sharing

Meanwhile, a company that launched as a more private social network has come to the conclusion that its sharing methods weren’t private enough. "What we’ve learned from our users is that their Path friends list is really a mix of people from different contexts," says Cynthia Samanian, a product manager at the company. "People have close friends, family, and co-workers on Path. It really comes down to wanting to have more control over who they’re sharing with."

That’s nothing new, but it’s an idea that Path long resisted in an effort to create a network so intimate that a user need never worry that a post would be seen by the wrong person. When it launched, Path limited you to 50 friends; the current version lets you add up to 150. "Because your personal network is limited to your 50 closest friends and family, you can always trust that you can post any moment, no matter how personal," the company said at the time of its launch. "Path is a place where you can be yourself."

In the years since then, though, Path found that users shared less than they wanted to because of worries over privacy. To provide more control, Path is rolling out two changes. First, a user can share a moment privately with one or more friends. A picture, a thought, a song you’re listening to — all can be shared to only the friends you choose. When her friend was getting married, Samanian used the feature to share a picture of the wedding dress with her fellow bridesmaids. "There are certain moments that it makes sense to share just with a few of your friends," she says.

Introducing the inner circle

More dramatically, in a move that recalls the approach to privacy taken by Google+, Path is introducing a concept it calls "inner circle." Pick as many friends as you like, up to the 150-friend limit, to receive only your most personal broadcasts. Samanian says she puts only family members in her inner circle; others might choose a close group of friends. Friends can be added and subtracted from the inner circle by tapping a star next to their names; posts are limited to the inner circle by tapping a lock icon inside the post.

With its inner and outer circles, is Path still the personal network — or is it becoming the same jumble of folks a person tends to add on Facebook? "That’s really not our intention," Samanian says. "It’s not for people to feel looser about accepting friends on Path. For us this feature is more for people who already have friends, to share more content."

Sharing more while spending more — it’s what Path needs users to do if it hopes to survive as an independent company. Getting to this point has required Path to rethink the way people share, with significant consequences for the user. Now we’ll find out whether Path’s fan base thinks the end result is worth sharing with all those friends of theirs who haven’t yet joined — and, just as importantly, whether they find any of it worth paying for.

Path 3.2 screenshots