10/14/2011 01:31 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2011

Path: A Cozy Virtual Hangout

You know how when you plan a dinner party you put as much thought into the guest list as you do the menu? You think about who knows whom, who's in need of a little matchmaking or cheering up, who's likely to rub someone the wrong way... You filter the people you bring together based on any number of criteria depending on the context. It's like with recipes; chemistry matters. And it's an art.

Our options for having this kind of control over online gatherings are pretty limited. It seems that the subtleties of social savoir faire are mostly lost on the people who build community platforms for the Web...

I'm always on the lookout for ways to stay in touch with my family and friends back in the U.S., since I can't have them over for dinner here in France. So I decided to try a free application called Path, which I've used to create a little virtual hangout.

It's private and intimate; a refreshing change from Facebook, which is like a kegger and a baby shower and a company picnic and a family reunion all rolled into one (talk about indigestion!). I left that party over a year ago. I got sick of seeing the "We're praying for you" comments of people I didn't know in response to the whiny oversharing of people I didn't really want to be "friends" with in the first place. I was uncomfortable thinking my "real" friends or colleagues might be seeing certain of my relatives' religious or right-wing comments. Things like that.

Google Plus recently came along and is in a position to challenge Facebook's hegemony. It has addressed the cacophony and compartmentalization issues to a degree with its Circles feature. You can place people in one or more "circles" (which you create), and publish updates visible only to them. You don't necessarily need your business partner to see pictures of your new grandbaby, any more than your family needs to see a link to an article about your business, right? (But they can if you want them to -- just takes a click.) The Circles feature also allows you to read the updates of one circle at a time, so you can choose to read only family members' news, for example. It's much less crazy-making this way.

To be fair, Facebook did just launch Smart Lists, which supposedly do more or less the same thing as Circles (took 'em long enough), although there were some glitches at first, like your contacts being able to see that you had placed them in the "acquaintances" rather than the "friends" category. (The whole thing was implemented with typical Facebook finesse.)

2011-09-16-Path2.jpgBut unlike Facebook and Google Plus, Path is a "less is more" kind of experience.

At first glance, Path might seem to you like a toy for 17-year-olds (I would have loved it at that age, it's true). But if you think about it, it would be a fabulous way to stay in touch with distant kids or grandkids in a private setting, or a "place" where you can let your hair down with your closest friends or siblings.

Just so you know, it's designed to be a mobile application, though you can use it through the Web too if you don't have the right kind of phone or mobile device (Android or iOS). It is also very much about photos.

The basic idea is you take a picture of something, publish it on Path with a comment (Path calls this "sharing a moment"), and your friends -- only those you've invited -- can see and respond to it. It's also easy to share a moment with only specific friends. Your friends can post moments of their own so you can see what they're up to and interact with them. But they can't see each other's moments unless they specifically invite your other friends to share. Some real control at last! Feels good.

You do have the option to publish your Path moments to Facebook, but what would be the point of that? Then you'd lose the element of intimacy that makes Path so special. And you'd lose privacy; anything you publish on Facebook is also visible to gawd and everybody on the Web. You can find out more about how Path works by reading their thorough FAQs.

To test the app, I invited seven of my oldest friends to my Path "party," all but one of whom have met IRL (in real life) at various parties and weddings of mine over the years. They're between 49 and 65, all professionals, all with similar world views.

So far, they've all logged in and taken a look, but only one has uploaded moments of her own. It may turn out that the looky-loos have no interest in this game, and that's fine. Or maybe they just need to get used to the idea and the toy itself. And if it ends up being a social network of two, that could actually be a lot of fun! The one girlfriend who has come out to play -- a graphic artist and web designer, and the single mom of a junior high schooler -- is always on the go. Path is faster and more fun than e-mail and, like e-mail, renders the time zone difference irrelevant. It may just be the perfect way for the two of us to keep up with each other.

Path was co-founded by a former early member of the Facebook team, but before that he worked at Apple. Fortunately, the Apple aesthetic and approach to user experience were what stuck. Path is a pure pleasure to use, with an exceptionally attractive, clean and intuitive user interface.

I regret that you can't create multiple "paths" with one account. I think maybe I'll use a different e-mail address to create another Path account to hang out with my 12-year-old nephew in California (who just got an iPod touch for his birthday from his Auntie who loves him to pieces). I'm looking forward to getting pics of camping trips, stupid cat tricks, Halloween costumes, his mom with an avocado mask on her face... With Path I won't have to completely miss out on all of those precious moments.