For years, I’ve been trying to ignore my disastrous contact management situation. Really, once you get digits, email addresses, and job titles for more than a couple dozen people, you’re doomed to collect duplicates and false (or outdated) information about every single human being you know like some sort of sick, twisted Katamari ball of maddening and ever-worsening inaccuracy. If you let it go for too long, your address book becomes less of a legitimate tool and more of a tattered, faded treasure map that may lead you to the phone numbers and email addresses you need, if the planets align.
But then my friend and former colleague Joanna Stern published a column touching on this very nonsense, and it finally spurred me into action.
How does this mess happen in the first place, anyway?
The short answer is, "Who really knows?" Contact mismanagement is often a legitimate mystery, like dust bunnies and socks that go missing in the dryer. But a big part of it, as Joanna points out, is that we used to haphazardly transfer contacts forward year after year to the next phone or Palm Pilot. Then we started using online contact storage — services like Google — and that simplified things, but introduced new opportunities for jacked-up syncs or mismatched contact fields that made the situation even worse. My added challenge, which is certainly not unique to me, is that I have multiple Google accounts: a personal account and a work account through Vox Media’s Google Apps domain. Some work contacts are in my personal account, some are in my work account, and many are in both (likewise for my personal contacts). On my iPhone — which is really the place where I care about this stuff most — these can appear as dupes, unless you "link" them locally, which doesn’t do you any good on any other device you’re using.
Like dust bunnies and socks that go missing in the dryer
I started by experimenting with Brewster, which had been spamming me with contact update requests coming from other people who were trying it. (I don’t condone this behavior by services, by the way; it only came to mind because I’d seen so many emails from them in recent weeks.) But it immediately failed — it literally errored out when trying to link one of my Google accounts, and completely blocked me from unlinking it or proceeding any further, so I moved on. Next, I stumbled across FullContact, which just announced a few weeks ago that it was adding support for multiple Google accounts. Score.
The concept behind FullContact is pretty simple: you link all of your contact-carrying accounts, like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so on. You can also import contacts stored on your phone, pull them in from iCloud, and do a one-time import from a file, so you should be good basically no matter where your data currently lies. Once everything is linked and imported, the service works some magic to create a new "unified contacts" book — this is your One True Contact Bible, basically — which intelligently merges, de-dupes, and fills in extra information that it can find on your contacts from around the internet (like company and job title). Over time, it automatically keeps the unified address book up to date, and will hold any changes that it isn’t sure about for your review the next time you log into the website or the mobile app.
This is how you want FullContact to look: no updates, no unresolved merges.
FullContact can be set to sync these unified contacts back to the accounts that it has two-way communication with (Google, for instance), so everything is in beautiful harmony. But you can also set up your iPhone so that it’s syncing its local contact information with FullContact’s unified contact list instead of Google; setup is super easy. I’ve been doing it for the past month without any issue, and as far as I can tell, every single one of my many, many duplicates has vanished.
But the service isn’t without its flaws. Facebook apparently recently made changes that prevent FullContact from pulling contact information for anyone who isn’t using FullContact, which likely includes every single one of your Facebook friends. That’s a shame, because Facebook in particular is a rich source of updated contact pictures and other miscellany that you’d probably otherwise have to fill out by hand.
Most people can’t justify spending $120 a year just to keep their address book tidy
And here’s the doozy: FullContact costs $9.99 per month for its "premium" tier, which is required to get multiple Google accounts to sync. (It also refreshes contact data more frequently than the free tier, ups the contact storage from 5,000 to 25,000, and offers 50 business card transcriptions per month, meaning you snap a picture of a card and FullContact will pull the data and upload it to your account for you.) Most people can’t justify spending $120 a year just to keep their address book tidy, but I can imagine it being a really quick and easy decision for, say, someone in sales, where your job hinges on the size and quality of your Rolodex.
I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll keep paying, but fortunately, FullContact lets you export your unified contacts in any of several formats — so at least I’m not locked in forever.
Just remember, Chris Ziegler and Christopher Ziegler are the same person.