Path should not extrapolate too much from Indonesia

Yesterday, Path launched version 4.0 of its app.  Version 4 is an incremental improvement over version 3 and there is now a new standalone messaging app.

Path is supposedly doing alright, growing from 1.5 million DAUs at the beginning of the year to 4 million.  A TechCrunch article further states that:

Southeast Asia is now its biggest market, with the U.S. coming second, but Path is also seeing some user growth from the Middle East.

While TechCrunch will readily accept Path implying it’s popular in South East Asia, data from App Annie shows that it’s really just Indonesia.

I spoke to a couple of friends in Indonesia on why they use Path.  The country has distinct characteristics that make Path a useful product there — perhaps uniquely — but that usefulness isn’t in messaging as the company believes.

It would be a mistake for Path to extrapolate too much from Indonesia into a company-wide bet.  Though I suppose they have to go somewhere.

Given that Path 4.0 just launched and that loyal users should be busy updating the app, Path’s current ranking is a good indicator of where it’s being used.

path

As you can see above from App Annie, Indonesia is the only South East Asian country with notable traction.  You can argue that Indonesia is the only country with notable traction.  The Android chart paints an even more stark picture.  So Path is not popular in South East Asia and the Middle East as Path’s PR would like you to believe — it’s just Indonesia and maybe a bit of Saudi Arabia.  And even then Path is nowhere near Whatsapp’s popularity in Indonesia.

There are a few Indonesians I know who use Path, so out of curiosity I asked a couple of them why they do.  I mean, why only Indonesia of all places, right?  Their answer was enlightening.

Many Indonesians work in large companies and culturally, it’s normal for colleagues, bosses and even employees you manage to add you on Facebook, the de facto social network in Indonesia (BBM too, though less and less).  Facebook is used for both personal and business relationships.  Indonesia is very social — no accident the archipelago is among the biggest markets for Facebook and Twitter — and gossiping is practically the national past time.  Yet it’s considered impolite to turn down a friend invite, and many fear the potential backlash of putting an acquaintance on limited profile only to get found out later.

There is a term, jaim, which means jaga image in the Indonesian language, which means carefully guarding how one is perceived by others.  People are so concerned with what others think of them that slang was invented to describe the personality trait that controls that fear.  So you can imagine people’s reticence to post party pictures of them getting drunk on a social network that everyone is on.

And so Path found product-market fit with a country that actually needed a private social network; perhaps the only country that does.  A place for actual friends to exchange real updates and intimate photos with each other.

“So why doesn’t Path have the same problem as Facebook?” I asked.  “What happens when your boss tries to add you on Path?  Do you turn him down?”

The answer: “Of course not!  But very few know about Path as it’s not mainstream, so you won’t have that problem.”

Uh-oh.

Path’s relative success is owed to its niche appeal.  Which could mean if the app became too popular, it would no longer meet the needs of its core audience.

Moreover, Path’s traction in Indonesia seems circumstantial; cultural norms that may not exist elsewhere and that put the app in the best possible light (while it remains niche).  Do Indonesians using Path to message each other mean that Path should be a messaging platform?

Because that’s the extrapolation the company seems to have made:

The main thing that keeps users coming back, that keeps driving engagement, is messaging. Since launching the feature a year ago, it’s been the fastest-growing feature of the app, according to Morin.

No, people use Path to message each other because they needed a private space to update their real friends.  They don’t use Path to message each other because the app is superior for messaging; it’s the audience, not the medium.  I don’t know if Path should look at Indonesia as a lesson for what it should do elsewhere.

In fact, I’d argue the value that Path brought is quickly being made obsolete by group chat on Whatsapp, LINE and other popular messaging apps.  On my phone, I have group chats with different circles of friends who use the forum to share photos, banter and gossip that they may not put on formal social networks.  It’s just a matter of time before people in Indonesia do the same, if not already.

Current messaging apps do such a good job of sharing among friends that you have to ask: What’s the point of Path?

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