Did Path Cheat Its Way to The Top?S

Path is not a popular app. Outside of privacy crusaders and various geek niches, it's virtually unknown—a sanctimonious social network built to appeal to Facebook's haters, that ended up appealing to few. But for some reason, it's spiking in popularity around the world. Inexplicable, right? No—just shady spam tactics and money at work.

Path climbed to the top of the Apple App Store in April, but now sits at no. 66 for free apps. How does a spike like that happen? From what we hear, it happens when its founder wants to get rid of it.

Ex-Facebook and currently insufferable Dave Morin likes to describe his three-year-old messaging app Path as the intimate "family home" to Facebook's nosey "town newspaper." But Path, which spent 2012 floating around app stores with user base in the "low millions," got a lot less clubby this spring.

In April, Morin was promising 10 million registered users—double what the messaging app claimed in December—and adding new sign-ups at a million user/week clip. Sure enough, recently the app inflated to 12 million registered users.

At the time, Morin crowed about just how "completely organic" his growth is. "We weren’t featured in the App Store or anything," he told the Wall Street Journal. Which is true—and that's the sort of traffic-busting exposure you can't even pay for, right? Sort of. Although the Apple App Store hasn't highlighted the alt service, it's paid its way onto screens around the world. We've heard from multiple sources that Path is on a marketing spree, dumping a fortune (upwards of $10 million in two months, we hear) into Facebook—its sworn antithesis—to put ads in our faces. That figure, if true, would eat roughly a quarter of the $41.2 million in venture funding Path has raised in the past three years.

Crazy as that sounds, some analytics data—although never entirely accurate—roughly corroborates the blitz:

Did Path Cheat Its Way to The Top?S

Those ruddy lines show an increase in Path's popularity correlated with an increase in Facebook spending, a tactic that, sadly works very well. It turns out people do click that shit. It's an imperfect measure, but it makes perfect sense: Path has a quasi-pathological track record of spamming your friends. It's done it repeatedly, with only a modicum of shame (and one regulatory fine). We've also been told that it gets more shameful.

Most apps that rely on your friend group to be of any use will try to get their hands on your contact list. An app needs your contact list like malarial mosquitoes need blood. Some apps ask for permission, while some just snatch—Path was guilty of the latter until it was disgraced out of the practice. Now it's taking a sort of covert middle road between privacy violation and self-propagation: pushing new users to spam their friends by default.

Prior to its update in March, Path users who tried to find people they knew on the service would find a smaller subset of their friends displayed. But in the latest version, every single person you have in your phone is marked for spamming, off the bat. We confirmed this by logging into Path both as new users (below, left) and with our existing log-in (right). As you can see, only newly-created accounts are urged to blitz. That's a desperate, late-game tactic for popularity. But it gets more calculated than an advertising scattershot. It gets worse.

Did Path Cheat Its Way to The Top?S

We've been tipped by multiple sources who wish to remain unnamed that Path is spamming your friends with the help of a shady little company called Rapleaf. You've never heard of Rapleaf, and Rapleaf would prefer it that way: the company boasts of having "at least one data point tied to over 80% of all U.S. consumer email addresses," and grabs that data to make a sort of map of who knows each other. Sources say Path is using Rapleaf to automatically single out particularly apt targets for spam—targets who aren't friends with members of the tech media, say, or who have a relatively isolated social group. People who won't complain when their inlaws and roommates are spammed. People who might not even notice. It's a brilliant, diabolical plan, which of course Path denies: "We've never had a relationship with Rapleaf and we will never have a relationship with Rapleaf. We don't have any relationship to any service that's similar to Rapleaf," a spokesperson told Valleywag by phone. They do have something of a relationship, however, in their backers: Peter Thiel's Founder Fund is an investor in both Path and Rapleaf.

And of course Path denies it, because the company can't afford more horror publicity. That's already not working: despite alleged efforts to curb and target its spamming so that it won't get bandied around the web, plenty of Path users are noticing when the app auto-spams their friends.

Did Path Cheat Its Way to The Top?S

One particularly irked TechCrunch commenter said "Part of my job is to test apps. Lots and lots of apps. I have seen thousands of sign-up funnels. This is the first time I have seen my entire contact book contacted at once without me being able to select who." The brash access was enough for Facebook to sever Path's ability to glean friends—though of course Zuck was just waiting for an excuse to slap the competition.

Why is Dave Morin making his app so unpleasant? How do you reconcile an app with both cutesy collectable stickers, and a built-in mechanism that'll spam your parents in the middle of the night? Morin might be the kind of smug Valley operator who boasts of the special app he had made to get in touch with his secretary—but he's not a dunce.

No one spam-blasts for its own sake. Privacy perversion isn't an art. We've been told independently by another set of local tipsters that Morin is prepping Path for purchase—that the company is whipping its users like racehorses in the hopes it'll cross into an acquisition before it all collapses. Maybe most of these users will be too turned off by the way their address books have been violated to keep using Path, but if Morin can point hard enough to that big fat user base number, then some sucker might think it's worth a price. Never mind that profitability is as far from Path as Neptune. Never mind that there's no telling how many of these millions of "users" actually use Path regularly, and that judging by current rankings, these alleged spam tactics are now turning people off. Never mind any of it. After Tumblr, we can all be sure that none of this really matters: just speak of cool, cite big numbers, and let someone's loose wallet do the rest of the work.