The iPhone app ShoeBox helps preserve your browning family Polaroids from the '80s while rendering obsolete your clunky old scanner from the '90s. And now the app is partnering with Facebook to integrate directly with Timeline and fill out that dead zone between "Birth" and the invention of Facebook.
Along the way, the service plans to collect a treasure trove of data (photos = 1,000 words, remember), and maybe even send shivers up the spines of big online genealogy services.
As every bit of analog info in our world undergoes an electronic transfiguration, the digitization of the world’s paper photos was inevitable. And it's in this endeavor that ShoeBox shines. It finds photo edges and adjusts for level and tilt, making it easier than ever for Facebook’s 800 million+ users to preserve their pasts.
ShoeBox was created by 1000memories, a social network for past memories whose home page looks like a Pinterest for awkward family photos. Launched in 2010 out of San Francisco’s Y-Combinator startup accelerator program, 1000memories originally focused on helping people posthumously tell loved ones’ life stories, after cofounder Rudy Adler experienced the "Facebook death problem" through a close friend’s passing. "After someone passes, it inspires people to go into their closet and pull out their life story," Adler says. "But," the company soon realized, "they also pull out other life stories."
Last March, 1000memories announced a shift away from strictly memorials, billing itself a wider, "past-tense social network." It began to support photo tagging, so users could share and discover old photos of themselves and loved ones.
"We have our most cherished memories in our closets sitting all alone, and if there’s a fire, they’re the first thing we want to grab," Adler says.
The inspiration for ShoeBox came when Adler’s team noticed users taking iPhone pics of their paper photos instead of dismantling their scrapbooks to fit in a desktop scanner. The appeal of mobile scanning is obvious: no need to remove photos from their decorative frames, no danger of having to plop a brittle black-and-white face down on glass.
The release of ShoeBox in October 2011 immediately turned heads at Facebook HQ.
"Facebook Timeline launched a month before we launched ShoeBox," Adler says. "We ... got a lot of good response, including an email from Zuck saying he was really excited."
With today's announcement that Facebook Timeline will help kickstart the archiving of the world’s photos, 1000memories hopes it’s on its way to building an enormous memory database.
"We estimate there are 4 trillion paper photos out there," Adler says. "Compared to Flickr, which has more than 6 billion."
He envisions ShoeBox and 1000memories being used to archive every paper photo in history, "so they can live on."
The current business model, Adler says, is to open up a freemium version in which users can pay for more space or—ingeniously—for backups of their most precious memories.
While Adler was vague on how his company could harness the enormous data contained in digitized versions of 4 trillion paper photos, it’s not too hard to imagine the possibilities it would open up. The treasure trove of crowdsourced photos could seriously disrupt the online genealogy industry.
"We have a lot of genealogists on the site, because there’s not a great photo sharing site for them," Adler says, then hesitates and says they’re going to wait to see if it’s an need for which they can help solve.
Adler’s being humble. Anyone with a genealogy freak for a mother knows of the ravenous appetite for data that exists in the family history space—especially for photos and documents. Ancestry.com, for example, makes $300 million a year from the thousands of seniors pecking at keyboards in Salt Lake City, Utah, and gallivanting through Europe hunting for tombstones. Once 1000memories starts connecting the dots in its photo archive, it may be in for a crazy, old time. (This all benefits Facebook, too, whose massive database of profile pics and other images and associated tags is a valuable trove of data, one that could power face-recognition tech and more.)
"The innovation for genealogists is they’re really obsessed with family history," Adler says, a total understatement. "And this gives them a little cred."