Every weekday at 6am, my Sonos wakes me up with NPR’s Morning Edition. After listening to how the world is probably, maybe hopefully not going to end today, my first hour of consciousness is devoted to that age-old ritual of hustling my 11-year-old kiddo through all of the morning things and out the door to school at 7am. You know the drill: news, breakfast, lunch-making, backpack, coat, and into the car. Add in a generous helping of all of the pre-teen drama that accompanies every school morning.
But no matter how hectic, stressful or challenging the morning school rush, I am always able to decompress for about 20min afterward with a smile on my face. A smile that begins with a little notification on my phone from Google Photos, that reads, “X years ago, today…Look back at this date.” The feature is called Memories, and it is the best part of my morning, bar none.
I’m not sure how the algorithm works or why certain memories are surfaced and others are not, but I love it. Every photo is like a trip back in time to that particular moment, allowing me to fondly remember a family trip, birthday party, or precious moment with my kiddo. I re-experience her first swim class, the loss of a tooth, or a school recital. On my wedding anniversary, I get to see how we celebrated previous years. Christmas and New Years’ in the present is given a reminder of those events in the past. It’s an answer to a question I am not sure any of us consciously think about.
It has been said that Gen Z and younger people are now the most photographed generation in the history of the planet, by orders of magnitude over previous generations. Obviously, this is due to the advent of digital photography and the ubiquitous nature of mobile phones with cameras. Thirty years ago, picture-taking (non-polaroid) was a FAR more complex task: buy a camera, supply it with batteries and film, take maybe 20 pictures, remove film, drive to the pharmacy (that sounds like a weird step, but somehow this is the way things were) and drop off your film, wait a couple of days to get physical pictures back, share the pictures with your friends and family by waiting for them to come visit you. And when they leave, you keep the pictures and they only have memories of seeing them!
Today, our culture is awash in digital images. We photograph everything all the time, in a non-stop torrential stream of social sharing. As I was considering this state of affairs a few years ago, the question hit me: when do we actually go back and look at all these photos? I mean, purposefully; not just perusing Instagram to see the latest from your in-laws vacation. When do we stop and take time to go back a year, five years, or a decade and appreciate whatever it was that prompted us to press that shutter button in the first place?
Before mobile phones, we put select physical photos in albums or scrapbooks that were meant to be seen and used and shared when friends and family visited us. But today, the sheer volume and pace of photo sharing seems to prevent this intentional retrospective. There are too many choices and too much content; both are conditions that tax the human brain into doing nothing, rather than making a decision.
Artificial intelligence picks up where our brain leaves off
In a 2021 blog post, Google noted, “most of the 4 trillion photos stored in Google Photos are never viewed.” Wow, that’s a trillion with a “T”! With the problem thus defined, Google also gave us an answer: AI-powered Memories. And you know what? In my opinion, it’s a really good answer. If you’re a person of “a certain age” as I am, or undoubtedly after you have kids, time seems to oddly accelerate. Years fly by with increasing velocity, and we find ourselves distracted and easily forgetting those precious, everyday moments. Google Photos, in addition to everything it already does, now gives us those moments back. I get a notification, and then I look at the photo and suddenly I’m back there in that moment for a few minutes, remembering. Paradoxically, this feature, like everything else powering Google Photos, is driven by machine learning. But it doesn’t feel robotic or mechanical. It feels personal and intimate. It’s one element in a whole that makes Google Photos feel like a service that has been carefully crafted and thoughtfully considered, placing people and how we feel at the center of the experience.
So, how in the heck did Google end up creating such an amazing masterpiece? Well, if you read my last article, you probably know where I’m going with this. Google Photos began as part of a far more expansive and audacious experiment that so clearly and spectacularly failed: Google Plus. To understand what Google Plus was, I have to talk about photos again, because the line connecting the failed social media venture to the wildly successful photo curation service is quite vivid if you know where to look. After all, where did people keep all of their pictures and videos they wanted to share before Google Photos? Well, they uploaded them to social media. People (like me) uploaded album after album to the only real game in town during the late 2000’s: Facebook.
The social dilemma
By 2011, Facebook had buried the former king of social media, MySpace, and they were in an explosive growth mode. The controversial privacy and algorithm issues that would later plague the company were not apparent to the general public yet. To be honest, though, I was beginning to sour on the Facebook experience even then. I was an active Facebook user at the time, with well over 300 “friends”. My daily interactions consisted of reading political rants from these “friends”, along with browsing photos of everyone’s vacations, holidays, graduations, anniversaries, and cats. Lots and lots of cats.
Facebook was like a warehouse of photos, and I was fully invested just like everyone else. Until I wasn’t. I slowly found myself spending less time on the platform because it felt like every post was a zero-sum existential argument, and all I wanted to do was see photos of my cousins. Facebook photos were the only thing keeping me engaged at that point. I began to take stock of whether my time on Facebook was well-spent. The problem was that there were no alternatives with similar features…until June 2011 when Google entered the social media arena with Google Plus.
Google’s social media gamble
I remember being wildly excited when I first heard about it. You needed an email invite from someone already on the platform to even sign up, so there was this feeling of exclusivity and even prestige in those early days. There were rumors of people scalping invites on Facebook and Twitter. Can you imagine?! As we all understood it at the time, Google saw an opportunity to fix three things that current social media companies were failing miserably at:
- Anonymity – Twitter and Reddit had a troll problem. Google hypothesized that forcing people into using their real names and linking their Google accounts was a way to keep the worst behaviors at bay by removing the cloak of anonymity.
- Content Discovery – There was a saying back then that Facebook was where you went to interact with people you already knew, while Google Plus was where you went to connect with people you wanted to know. Google Plus Sparks and Communities allowed users to discover and connect with each other over a wide range of topics and interests.
- Social sharing, but with really good privacy controls – Google Plus created the concept of Circles: rings of different networks of people, allowing you granular control over who saw what in your profile, and who you shared content with.
The reimagining of social sharing was a game-changer. Facebook and Twitter had friend list features that were grafted on, but at its core, Facebook’s privacy features had three settings: friends, friends of friends, and everyone. This created a challenge when you wanted to share a vacation photo of you and your friends taking shots at the bar. You didn’t want your boss, or <gasp> your mom to see that picture. This issue was solved by design in Google Plus. Upload the vacation photo, hit share, then choose the circle named “close friends”, but exclude the circles called “family” or “work friends”. It was a magical and frictionless experience.
Not surprisingly, Google Plus Photos became the most popular component of Google Plus, curating photos from your posts and uploads, and later from your mobile device (a strategy Facebook paid $1Bil to duplicate). G+ (as users called it) had a main feed, Hangouts for chat and messaging, Sparks for content discovery, and Communities for shared interests, but it was Photos that took center stage. It was so successful that G+ users (including me) took to uploading all of their Facebook photos to the new service, something Zuckerberg noted with great alarm. For a moment, circa 2013-ish, Google Plus was peak internet, with its Photos feature leading the charge.
Google Photos is born
Alas, as Google Plus Photos grew in popularity, it almost seemed to suck the resources and development away from the other G+ components. The web UI aged quickly, the mobile experience was janky at best, and there was never feature parity between the two. Conversely, Facebook and Twitter had switched into development overdrive and were rapidly pivoting their features to compete. The tech media also didn’t know how to cover G+, with every review calling it a ghost town where you couldn’t interact with your grandparents. By 2015, the writing was on the wall. User engagement was down and it was a struggle to find anything positive in tech reporting. And as Google does, it began the process of analyzing all the component parts, opting to spin off Hangouts and Photos as stand-alone services.
It was no surprise that the newly named Google Photos was a runaway success, with tech reviewers positively gushing over the web and mobile curation experience. Today, Google Photos is a part of virtually every Android user’s everyday experience with over five billion downloads on the Play Store. It enjoys similar popularity and good reviews on the Apple App Store as well. Google Plus, however, began its slow march toward the guillotine in 2018 when Google announced that a security vulnerability had been discovered and user accounts had been exposed to (but not necessarily exploited by) 3rd party developers. The irony was unavoidable. In Google’s attempt to create a social network with better privacy controls than its rivals, it had fallen prey to its own privacy vulnerabilities. It was Google’s biggest – and to my knowledge only – large-scale privacy breach, and the shutdown of the entire Google Plus platform seemed like a symbolic beheading of the company service that had betrayed them. As a highly engaged G+ user, I can tell you first-hand that it was a wild ride that came to an end far too soon. But it was only through these early experiments and failures that Google could create successes like Photos.