For Rudy Adler and Brett Huneycutt, the future of social networking is the past.
The co-founders of the San Francisco startup 1000memories are trying to turn the world's smartphones into tools to digitalize the estimated 1.8 trillion fading and yellowing snapshots that people have lying around in their attics, garages and picture albums -- often among the most prized, and least seen, of people's possessions. The goal of the two friends since third grade is to add the past tense to the up-to-the-minute stream of social networks.
The company's iPhone app, called ShoeBox, allows users to photograph their old snapshots with the camera in their smartphone, upload the digital image to the Internet, and share it with anyone they choose. The same day ShoeBox launched in late October, Adler got an email from an interested partner. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wanted to impart a pep talk.
"He said that he liked the app and was excited for people to start using it to fill in their Facebook Timelines," Adler said.
Timeline is the prominent new feature on Facebook that is currently being phased in across the 850-million user social network. It's a sort of digital scrapbook that allows people to tell "the story of their lives," as Zuckerberg described it when he announced the new feature at Facebook's annual developer conference in September.
1000memories recently updated its ShoeBox app so a user can photograph an old photo with their iPhone, upload it, and then post it directly to their Facebook Timeline, parking the image in whatever year the photo was originally snapped.
ShoeBox is a solution to what remains one of the biggest obstacles to using the Internet to store memories: For most people, the major share of photos, journal entries or other containers of memory are analog, not digital. 1000memories estimates that while about three quarters of a 25-year-old's photographs are digital, just 12 percent of a 65-year-old's are.
"For most people there is this really big gap between when you were born and when you joined Facebook," Adler said. "We think this is going to be a really great tool for people to fill in the back story.
"We've always been focused on the past tense. We think in general that social media does a bad job of talking about the past tense; it talks about the 'now,' " Adler added. "But there is so much information now, and there are so many problems, like a death, on social media that require a past tense."
ShoeBox is one of a growing list of Timeline apps that includes San Francisco-based book-sharing service Goodreads, Menlo Park-based travel site Gogobot and movie site Rotten Tomatoes, which Facebook says can become as important as old photos to preserve memories and tell your story.
Typically, those services are a combination of a website integrated with Facebook and a smartphone app, so a person can instantly share experiences from the real world. The titles of the books people note that they read each month on Goodreads, for example, would show up on the News Feeds of their friends on the social network.
The new apps allow people "to bring the important parts of their lives -- such as travel memories, favorite books, or movie reviews -- to their Timeline," said Ethan Beard, Facebook's director of platform partnerships.
Facebook's efforts are just one piece of a broader effort to use the Internet to store memories. Memolane, for example, is a commercial service that allows people to build a timeline of their past activity on a social network like Facebook, Twitter or Google+. Nonprofits are also talking about ways to create tools that will allow the Internet to help store, preserve and organize people's memories.
"It's an active conversation," said Brewster Kahle, founder of the non profit Internet Archive in San Francisco. "There are definitely people going in this direction."
The Internet Archive recently held a conference that included the Library of Congress and private companies to investigate tools that could do that. But Kahle says he worries that commercial services, even ones as big and powerful as Facebook, are not always the best way to carry something as invaluable as memories into the future.
"How long is Facebook going to be here? I don't know; how long did Friendster last?" said Kahle, referring to the unsuccessful social network that predated Facebook. "The idea of depending on the commercial service to be there forever is probably not a wise maneuver, but they certainly make things accessible in fun and exciting ways."
Facebook's partners say that desktop and mobile apps connected to the social network can be a powerful way not only to preserve a memory, but to bring new users to that service.
"The longer we've all lived in this digital age, the longer we've had this information collected about us," said Otis Chandler, founder and CEO of Goodreads. "I think what Facebook is trying to capture is not letting that data die."
Chandler said in the first month after Goodreads integrated with Facebook Timeline in January, its users have shared on Facebook 6.2 million book titles they have read or rated, and the Goodreads service has had a 50 percent jump in new users. One thing people are doing, he said, is joining Goodreads and listing all the books on their Facebook Timeline that changed their lives as they were growing up, whether it was the discovery of the "Dune" science fiction series in junior high school, or that unforgettable reading of "Catcher in the Rye" in high school.
"I think the only surprise is the extent to which people are sharing books into Timeline," he said. "More people are now discovering Goodreads as a result, because every book being shared is a link to back to Goodreads."
The ShoeBox iPhone app (an app for Android devices is about one month way) is free and can be downloaded from Apple's (AAPL) App Store. Most people, Adler said, upload photos first to the 1000memories site, and then decide which pictures they want to share with their friends, or publicly, on Facebook.
ShoeBox users have the option of allowing their photos to be found or not found in a Google (GOOG) search. 1000memories is also working with Internet Archive to backup images stored with the service, to assure those images are never lost.
For many users, the quality of the ShoeBox photo upload experience will depend on how new their smartphone is.
For me, the app worked with an older iPhone 3G, but produced digital copies of snapshots that were disappointingly fuzzy when they were posted to Facebook. A new iPhone 4S, however, produced much sharper digital images that were barely distinguishable from the original after they were posted to Facebook.
Adler said he and Huneycutt have always been interested in telling stories through photos. In 2005 and 2006, the friends handed out disposable cameras to Mexican migrants crossing the border into Arizona, as well as to members of the Minutemen group trying to stop them. The photos became the foundation of the Border Film Project, a book and a website.
"We've always kind of been in the story-telling business," Adler said.
Ways to use Facebook to preserve and share memories
ShoeBox and 1000memories: The ShoeBox iPhone app and the 1000memories website allow users to make a digital copy of old photos through their smartphone camera, and to share those digital images on Facebook or on1000memories.com.
Goodreads: This "virtual bookshelf" and free iPhone and Android apps allow readers to share the books they've read on Facebook Timeline, to read or write reviews of books, and to link to online book sellers.
Source: Mercury News reporting