Even in an era when social networks are constantly pushing us to share more of ourselves, Paul Davison's projects stand out for their pushiness. Davison's first foray into social apps was Highlight, which broadcast your profile to everyone in your immediate surroundings. Davison's idea was that if enough people passively shared their basic personal details, it would allow for all sorts of serendipitous real-world connections.
In late 2013, when so-called "people discovery" apps like Highlight were on the wane, I met with Davison to see a redesigned version of Highlight. It took the oversharing premise of the original app and doubled down on it, broadcasting your motion state (sitting, running, biking, or driving) and even what song you were listening to. As with the first version, Highlight 2.0 landed with a thud — the company never disclosed user numbers, but it recorded fewer than 500,000 downloads on Android.
But one feature of Highlight did resonate, Davison says today: photos. The most popular behavior on Highlight was to open the profile of someone on the network and flip through the profile photos they had uploaded. But people didn't upload new photos every often, so the app's most popular behavior came to feel like a dead end. And so Davison being Davison, he took a flying leap to to a new question: what if your friends could see every photo you took?
What if your friends could see every photo you took?
If you've ever taken an unflattering photo, or a naked one, few ideas sound more terrifying. But plenty of successful social networks once sounded like terrible ideas, Davison points out. "If you look at the most interesting and loved and useful social products over the last 20 years, you'll find that lots of them have pushed us to share a little more openly than perhaps we felt comfortable doing," he says. "Before LinkedIn you would never put your resume online — that was a taboo. Your employer wouldn't like it. But now of course that's the norm, and it's so useful to be able to see people's backgrounds. Before Facebook came out it was strange to put photos of your kids online — who knows who's out there on the internet? But now of course you can do that."
This line of thinking led to today's release of Shorts, a social camera roll for iOS. You do control which photos on your camera roll your friends see, but Davison says his goal is to get people to share as close to 100 percent of the photos they take as possible. "When we build products, we enjoy thinking about places where we could push people a little bit, and give them a really good experience," he says. "And what we've found is that when people first hear about the concept, it might sound a little bit more than what they're used to doing. ... [But] once they feel comfortable with that, they realize what a benefit it is to be able to be see what your friends are doing throughout the day, to be able to see so much more about their lives."
Most photos are buried on our camera rolls
Davison argues that most of the photos we take on our phones are effectively useless, because they get buried on our camera rolls and are never shared with anyone. And it's a shame, he says, because those photos contain the moments that show us as we truly are: lounging around the house, playing with our kids, shopping for groceries. Share those moments with friends, he says, and we'll all feel more connected.
Open up Shorts and you can add friends via their usernames or phone numbers. When you open the app, it presents you with the latest photos from your camera roll. Swipe up to share the pictures or down to keep them private. An activity feed shows you your friends: tap them and you'll see their last 24 pictures and videos. (All of your own photos and videos remain visible to yourself on your profile.) Swipe up to "like" friends' photos, or down to skip them. You can also tap the photos to add comments.
In keeping with Highlight's oversharing roots, there's also a "Discover" feed — friends of friends and other people Shorts thinks you might know. By default, their last 24 photos are visible to everyone. (You can make your feed private if you like via the app's settings.) Within minutes of joining Shorts, I received several requests to view my camera roll from strangers — and even though I had carefully selected which photos I wanted to share, I still found the requests unnerving (and ignored them).
If the idea of sharing life's more intimate moments with a small group of friends sounds familiar, it's likely because you've already used Snapchat and its Stories feature. A set of rolling photos and videos that are visible for only 24 hours after they're posted, Stories is Snapchat's best feature and, by all accounts, its most popular. People feel more comfortable sharing knowing that it's all going to disappear, and the result is a network that often feels more lively and authentic than its peers.
Shorts can feel like a chore
Snapchat requires you to post photos and videos using the in-app camera. With Shorts, there's a clumsy extra step: after you take the photos, you have to open the app, then go through every photo to decide what you want to share. If you take a lot of photos every day — or just use burst mode once or twice — this process can feel like a chore. And the delay between taking photos and posting them means that not everything you share is going to be in real time, robbing Shorts of Snapchat's live-action appeal.
The first version of Shorts, which was never publicly released, omitted the swipe-to-share mechanic and simply broadcast your camera roll to friends. "The problem, as you might imagine, was it was scary," Davison says. "You don’t want to be edgy in the wrong way. You want people to use the product." The public version of Shorts may be less scary, but it still strikes me as totalitarian — a bid to turn one of our last private digital spaces into yet another forum for likes and comments.
Snapchat gets us to share more of ourselves because we fundamentally feel safe there. Shorts, by contrast, feels like a high-wire act. Couples or families might find it to be a cute app for keeping in touch. But I'd rather keep my camera roll to myself.