The CEO of Dropbox, Drew Houston, has told Technology Review more than once that he is building the “file system for the Internet” (see here and here). But news from the company yesterday suggests they may actually be enabling something more – decentralized social networking that doesn’t rely on everyone’s content being entrusted to one central store, such as Facebook.
New photo sharing features to arrive in coming weeks make it easy for people to use Dropbox to share their snaps with friends via a social networks or email without having to actually hand over their photos to Facebook or anyone else, allowing them to retain more direct control over their images. Up to now Dropbox’s sharing options have been primarily designed for collaborative working. All this is significant because sharing photos is one of the primary use cases for social networks – I’ve heard from Facebook employees that photos are the most popular content on the site.
Dropbox used to limit you to sharing just certain folders, but the new features make it easy to see all the photos you have stored in the service, and create an album to be shared via Facebook, email or other social site as a private link to an online album of the photos. It may seem a minor feature, but combined with Dropbox’s efforts to encourage people to put all their content into their personal cloud storage, it is a plausible step towards the outmoded idea of people socializing online while storing and controlling their own content. (A project called Diaspora tried to make that work before, but foundered, see “Leaving Facebook”).
Using Dropbox still involves entrusting your photos to the cloud, but the company’s business model of making money from storage fees gives it very different incentives to those of ad-supported companies such as Facebook or Google. Both Facebook and Google+ must extract information from users data - such as location tags on your photos - to make money through ads. That’s one reason why Facebook has often tweaked its privacy policies and settings, and the company’s timeline-style profile pages and new search feature (see “Facebook’s Graph Search”) both resulted in people being caught out by what photos and other information suddenly became easy to find (this site illustrates how).
Of course, many users of Facebook, Google+ and Dropbox are not all that concerned with online privacy or what Facebook or Google might do with their data. But Dropbox may still gain traction with that majority because it also makes managing photos much easier than Facebook and Google do. People rarely go back to delete or tidy up who can access old photos on Facebook, and it’s tedious to attempt. Deleting or controlling access to photos with Dropbox is much easier. You can use your file browser on you PC, and have the changes sync to your account. The online and mobile interfaces are aslo designed to mimic a file browser. In addition to that, many people’s photos go into Dropbox before they go anywhere else, something the company has long encouraged with features that automatically grab photos from a phone the instant they are taken, or from a camera as soon as it is attached to a PC.