Google Photos is transformational. Some name will emerge to describe the next wave of technology – “post-Internet” or “A.I.-enabled,” maybe. References to “artificial intelligence” and future technology can be vague and scary. Google Photos is here today to show you that what’s coming is exciting, not scary, and it has the potential to transform our lives as profoundly as the Internet itself has changed our world in the last twenty years.
When I went to school, I memorized as many basic facts as my brain could hold and I learned how to search for facts – how to navigate the library and use card catalogs and the rest. The Internet generation doesn’t need to memorize random bits of data and searching for facts is trivial, so they learn instead how to synthesize many strands of information, how to think creatively, and how to draw conclusions. We are just at the beginning of understanding the consequences of that shift and how it has already changed our world.
Google Photos rewires our memories in the same profound way. Google is using vast computing resources and machine learning technology to give us access to memories that would otherwise be lost or buried. We can spend less time trying to remember the details of our life events and our connections with other people because we have immediate access to them using Google Photos. It frees us up to spend more time finding creative ways to share those memories and build on our connections with others.
And there are new options coming that make Google Photos even richer.
You probably already know the basics. Google will store a copy of all your photos online for free. Install the Google Photos app on your iPhone or Android phone and your photos will be uploaded automatically to Google. Install a small app on your computer and you can add all the photos from the collections on your hard drives. Once the photos are online, you can view them in a web browser or in the Google Photos app on your phone. This is in addition to whatever else happens to your photos. It does not interfere with uploading to iCloud or Dropbox or OneDrive or whatever you might be doing.
Google indexes your photos so you can search for anything. Everything can be searched. You can go through your photos – your memories – just as readily as you can search through billions of websites with a Google search. You can search by date or by place, of course. You can search for all the photos that have your sister in them. Or your mother. Or your sister and your mother. Or your sister and your mother at a birthday party, or anything else it occurs to you to type in the search bar.
When you put your cursor in the search bar, Google Photos automatically shows you faces that turn up frequently in your photos. Clicking one brings up all the photos with that person. At the top you’ll see “Who’s this? Add a private label to search by name.” Type in a name and you can search by that name forever more. The label is just for you. If you’d rather search for “mom” than “Helen Berls,” then by all means, type in “mom” and do searches for “mom at yosemite.” Take a moment to note what happens when you start to type in a name, by the way. Google will supply a list of auto-suggest options from your phone contacts as you type, so you can tie a name and face together with a click.
You can search for times and dates. “2015.” “August.” “Evening.” “Summer.”
You can search for any characteristic of a photo. “Football.” “Birthday.” “Wedding.”
You can search for anything that appears in photos. “Water.” “Flowers.” “Birds.” “Dogs.”
You can combine any of those terms and Google Photos will show you the photos that fit instantly. “Maddie New Hampshire hiking.”
Think for a minute about how powerful it is to be able to do a Google search through your photos any time, instantly. Your memories are at your fingertips in a way that was impossible before Google Photos.
I’ve used Google Photos for two years and I can feel the effects almost every day. When did we go to New Zealand? What were our sons’ Halloween costumes? Who was with me at that concert a few years ago? When did we go skiing with the kids? It is as easy to find out those answers and see the pictures as it is to get the weather forecast.
Let’s not ignore the obvious: Google is a massive multinational corporation that is busily acquiring information from you and about you so it can show you advertising. Other huge tech companies (notably Facebook and Amazon) do the same thing. In theory it feels like we should resist giving up private information to big companies seeking to fatten their bottom lines. But we participate willingly because the companies are offering services that are literally life-changing. I wrote this article a couple of years ago about the privacy tradeoffs. Make your own decision about whether you’re comfortable giving the details of your life to Google. Not only do I think the rewards are worth it, I think Google Photos is so valuable that you’re deliberately handicapping yourself if you don’t use it.
Last month Google said that 500 million people use Google Photos every month, uploading more than 1.2 billion photos and videos every day. You should use it too.
In the next few weeks, Google will add some new options to share photos. You can assemble photos into an album and share them with a few clicks now, of course. Soon Google Photos will begin to do some of that work automatically, choosing photos from an event and suggesting that you share the album with people who are in the photos. If you do (this is all optional), they’ll get a reminder to share their photos with you from the same event. For the first time there will be an easy way to get all the photos of a birthday dinner or weekend trip in one place.
There will also be a new option to share photos automatically with someone. You will be able to give your spouse access to your entire photo library, if you want – or perhaps just the photos from a certain date forward, or just the photos with the kids in them. It’s the perfect option for the narcissistic generation – you can automatically see all the pictures taken by your best friend that you’re in and add them to your selfie collection.
It’s a bit retro but now Google will print a photo book cheaply and with a minimum of effort. Search for photos from a birthday party; Google Photos will remove duplicates and poor quality images and spin them into a book with a couple of clicks. You can tweak the layout if you like but Google will do a pretty good job as it tries to make this an impulse buy – ten bucks for a 7” 20-page softcover book or twenty bucks for a 9” hardcover book. You can create and order Google photo books from your phone as well as on the web.
Google Photos is amazing technology, but it’s also a deeply satisfying change in your life and your relationship to your memories. It’s not just a way to back up your photos, although that’s part of why it’s useful. Get started!