There are times when you just have to tell your friends about something -- but not necessarily your Facebook friends.
Just ask Becca Akroyd. When Ms. Akroyd, a 29-year-old lawyer in Sacramento, Calif., wanted to share a picture of her new vegetable garden, she didn't turn to Facebook. Instead she posted it on Path, a service that lets people share pictures, videos and messages with a small group.
"The people I have on my Path are the people who are going to care about the day-to-day random events in my life, or if my dog does something funny," Ms. Akroyd said. "On Facebook, I have colleagues or family members who wouldn't necessarily be interested in those things -- and also that I wouldn't necessarily want to have view those things."
Path, which limits friend groups to 50, is among a new crop of Web services that allow people to connect with a handful of friends in a private group. Users get the benefits of sharing without the strangeness that can result when social worlds collide on Facebook. Other start-ups in this anti-oversharing crowd include GroupMe, Frenzy, Rally Up, Shizzlr, Huddl and Bubbla.
Even Facebook recognizes that people don't want to share everything with every "friend." It has privacy settings that control who can see what, but many people find these challenging to set up. So last fall, Facebook introduced Groups, for sharing with subsets of Facebook friends. And in March, it acquired Beluga, a start-up that allows sharing photos and messages with small groups privately.
Last month, Facebook said its users had created 50 million groups with a median of just eight members. It also introduced the Send button, which websites can use to let people share things with Facebook groups.
"We realized there wasn't a way to share with these groups of people that were already established in your real life -- family, book club members, a sports team," said Peter Deng, director of product for Facebook Groups. "It's one of the fastest-growing products within Facebook. Usage has been pretty phenomenal."
Google is also working on tools for sharing with limited groups of people, according to a person briefed on the company's plans who was not authorized to speak publicly. Slide, a maker of social networking apps that was bought by Google, recently released an iPhone app called Disco, for texting with small groups.
©Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
|Dave Morin founded Path, a network that limits users to a small number of contacts.|
Google may discuss its plans in this area at a conference for developers this week. A spokeswoman, Katie Watson, declined to comment.
No one expects the start-ups in this field -- most of which are new and have relatively few users -- to replace Facebook or Twitter. Instead, their creators say that they do a better job of mimicking offline social relationships, and that they represent a new wave of social networking that revolves around specific tasks, like sharing photos or coordinating plans for the evening.
Shizzlr, for example, was created by two graduate business students at the University of Connecticut after they realized it was impossible to organize plans on Facebook.
"You put out a status about weekend plans and, all of a sudden, you get your uncle commenting that he wants to go hiking with you and your friends," said Nick Jaensch, who created Shizzlr with Keith Bessette.
After users invite a few friends into a group on Shizzlr, the service grabs a list of coming events from Yelp, Google and Facebook and lets members discuss their options. The groups reach capacity at 20 people.
In the last three months, about 3,600 people have downloaded the application -- a tiny number compared with Facebook's 600 million members. But Mr. Jaensch says he is not interested in competing with Facebook.
"The people that you've called in the past two to three weeks are the people you actually do stuff with," he said.
Shizzlr is just getting off the ground, but some of the other services in this field have attracted the attention of prominent investors. Path has raised $11 million from venture capitalists, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Index Ventures. GroupMe, which says it is handling 100 million messages a month, raised $10.6 million from Khosla Ventures, General Catalyst and First Sound, and others. AOL acquired Rally Up late last summer.
Dave Morin, Path's founder, was an early Facebook employee, but thought the social network had grown too large and impersonal for sharing certain things. Hundreds of thousands of users have agreed and signed up for Path, sharing more than five million photos and videos so far, Mr. Morin said. Most of their groups include far fewer than the 50 friends they are allowed, he said.
"People pull out their phone and show their photos and start telling a story about their life -- 'Last week I was on vacation,' or 'here's my cat,' or 'here's what I ate for dinner last night' -- but when we ask if they put those photos anywhere, people would say, 'Oh, no, no, no, it's way too personal,'" Mr. Morin said.
Those photos might also be too boring for the full lineup of one's Facebook friends. And, of course there are other photos that your cubicle neighbors and former flames might find to be ... too interesting.
"The larger social networks have certainly become more loose-tie networks of acquaintances," said Mo Koyfman, an investor at Spark Capital who follows social media trends. "But the way we communicate with acquaintances is very different from how we communicate with friends."
Spark recently invested in Kik, a mobile group messaging app.
Mr. Koyfman said most of these start-up applications centered on cellphones because they were inherently more personal than websites used at a computer.
Mr. Deng at Facebook said that his company was working on more tools for small-group sharing. But some Internet users and entrepreneurs maintain that the big social networks will always be too big for people to share comfortably.
John Winter, a developer in New Zealand, cobbled together Frenzy, an application that lets friends share links, photos, songs and other items in an invitation-only folder on the Web storage service Dropbox, effectively turning it into a private social feed.
"Twitter is public and Facebook is basically public," he said. "What else are you going to use?"