I saw something surprising when I looked at Google Photos the other day.
There, right in the middle of the app's prominent search screen, was a photo of me with an ex-girlfriend -- someone I hadn't seen in well over a decade. The photo was the cover image for a compilation that Photos had generated -- on its own, automatically -- for a city I visited in the early 2000s.
Now, I've been to that city since then, mind you -- with my now-wife, as a matter of fact. Plenty of pictures from that trip are in my Photos account, too, and Google knows they're there. It even placed them in the same compilation. But despite the presence of those more recent and relevant images, it picked the old photo with the former flame to use as the cover image on its main search screen. And there was no way for me to change it.
Is that the end of the world? Nah -- of course not. But a little awkward? Oh yeah. And could it have been far worse? You'd better believe it.
More than anything, Photos' decision to surface an old picture in such a prominent place got me thinking about the nature of the service and how it works with our real-world digital photo-storing habits. And the more you think about it, the more you realize just how complex and multilayered of an area that is.
Let's tackle the philosophical side of things first: Should photos with former love interests even be kept in your digital archives once a relationship is over? It's something I've been mulling over ever since my blast-from-the-past album-cover incident -- and it's something I suspect will become increasingly relevant as we move more of our lives into self-organizing digital storage lockers.
For me, moments from the past feel like significant memories of different eras of my life. It strikes me as strange to suddenly delete entire years' worth of memories just because they involved someone who's no longer around.
(And to be clear, I'm not talking NSFW stuff here. That's a whole other can of worms -- and we'll get to it in a minute.)
Maybe I'm overly sentimental, though, or maybe I'm just hesitant to throw old things away (confession: I am a total pack-rat, both digitally and in a more physical sense). Maybe we should be going all "Eternal Sunshine" on our pasts and purging old moments every time a relationship ends. If so, does that mean we should have been doing the analog equivalent in years past -- tearing out pages from physical photo albums and ridding ourselves of old memories the second someone exited our lives?
I'm not sure I know the answer -- or that there even is a right answer, in any universal sense. But I'm pretty confident I'm not the only one who keeps old photos around in the archives. There's something to be said for memories you might not want to throw away entirely but that you also don't want to have constantly in your face.
It's a deep discussion stemming from a seemingly simple subject, I realize. But when technology makes pieces of the past so easily accessible, it raises some pressing questions -- questions that are relevant not only to us but also to the companies that want to organize the profoundly personal moments of our lives.
From exes to sexting: What's the solution?
So onto the broader and more strictly technological part of this issue: How should Google (and other companies that create similar sorts of intelligent photo management services) accommodate the notion of a user owning different types of photos -- some that are fine to show off anywhere and others that aren't desirable for prominent featuring?
So far, it seems to be a challenge that's being brushed aside. And photos of exes aren't the only real-world implication.
Think for a moment about the always-titillating topic of NSFW photos -- those salacious sexting shots so many smartphone owners seem to store on their devices. Maybe they're pics with a current partner. Maybe they're with an ex, or with a short-term carnal companion. Heck, maybe they're solo showcases (hey, I'm not here to judge).
Regardless of the scenario, they're probably not images you'd want showing up in prominent places like auto-generated photo albums ("Look, Ma, here's a compilation of all my pics from NYC!") or keyword searches ("Uh, Bill, why did this photo come up when I typed 'nature' into your phone?").
For any type of what we'll call "deep-storage" content, the answer is simple -- at least, on a conceptual level: Give us an option to mark certain images or albums as "private," "sensitive," or "do not surface." That'd provide an easy way to keep selected photos in your archives yet out of the spotlight -- and to make sure any, ahem, revealing moments don't pop up at the wrong time. Auto-organization is an amazing thing, but manual control is still an important part of the picture.
Your move, Google
My own image-surfacing saga was thankfully free of any lasting trauma. The picture that showed up as a high-ranking album cover in my Photos app wasn't anything awful or embarrassing; I pointed it out to my wife, who knew of that ex and had evidently seen her photo before, anyway. And at some point several days later, Photos randomly switched out the cover image to something else (I'm still not sure why -- maybe my going into the album and opening a more recent photo clued it into the fact that it had made a bad call).
Even with my happy ending, though, the questions raised by my experience are critical points to consider as we trudge forward into the realm of intelligent digital photo organization. When you're dealing with something as personal, complex, and often times messy as a years-long photo collection, it's easy to imagine computer-sorting scenarios where results could progress from "awkward" or "non-ideal" to "mortifying" or even "damaging" in a heartbeat.
If tech companies are going to be the guardians of our digital memories, they're going to have to start thinking about these questions -- and start thinking about them soon. Being able to search and sort our personal memories is a powerful tool to wield. And as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.
Google Photos is an impressive beginning to an ambitious goal, but in some cases, no level of machine learning can match what only a mind can know. Add in some manual tuning as a balance to the computer-sorting smarts, and we might just have a winning formula that works its magic without the worry.