Photohosting service Webshots announced yesterday that it's becoming Smile, a photosharing service that pulls your photos from various places (Instagram, Facebook, etc) and stores them in one convenient accessible cloud. Which sounds like a really great idea, and really useful for sharing photos with friends and family and parole officers.
However, buried deep within their FAQ section is the bad news. The bad news is that if you don’t log into your old Webshots account and confirm it as a new Smile account, all your photos will be deleted. Webshots CEO Narendra Rocherolle confirmed to BuzzFeed, "It is true that the old service has been paused and will no longer be available after Dec 1."
Yes. They will be deleted. Forever. [echo] ever... ever... ever...
In the mid-2000s, Webshots was a popular competitor to photo hosting sites like Flickr and Snapfish. In 2004 it was acquired by CNET. Then, in 2007, it was bought by greeting card company American Greetings. Then, everyone just put their photos on Facebook. And well, that was the end of that. Webshots still currently hosts 690 million photos, though that may change come December.
The Webshots original founders have bought it back from American Greetings, and Smile's how they plan to drag the sizable existing userbase into their new cloud storage venture.
Webshots' Rocherolle says, “We have an aggressive plan to notify everyone who does have photos to make sure they aren't caught unaware.“ In addition to the notification on the homepage, I assume this means notifying account holders by email.
This may prove easier said than done. Since many users created their account years ago, their login email address is no longer active or regularly checked. BuzzFeed senior editor Whitney Jefferson created an account in 2005 to store photos from her junior year abroad using a Hotmail address that is now defunct. Though she’s rarely logged into the site to view the photos, she’d be heartbroken to lose them (don't worry, I told her to go in and update her account today).
This is what link rot looks like, and with personal photos, it’s a little more frustrating than a Geocities fan page disappearing. Years of people’s photos — baby pictures, college parties — are going to disappear because of corporate restructuring. Losing phone contacts, term papers, business presentations, and all our other digital debris is plenty annoying, but they don't have the same impact as losing photos. They're the thing people worry about the most: The family photo album is the thing you grab when you run out of your burning house.
While Webshots may not exactly be the most relevant service to many of us, the fact that it's wiping out so much user data is telling to what the future may hold. Seven years ago, Webshots was useful and important. Who know what Instagram or Twitter or Facebook will be like in 7 years, or in 15 years. It's not a stretch to imagine a day when all our words and images hosted on these services are removed as the companies collapse or morph. Friendster is now a video gaming service, MySpace is music streaming. When Facebook inevitably becomes primarily a service to communicate to our robot bulters through our cryogenic pods, what will happen to all our photos and messages?
What remains of Webshots is a perfectly preserved time capsule of 2006 digital photography. Images are low res, and stylistically, people aren't as good at using cameras as they are now.
Doug Battenhausen has been running a prolific Tumblr called Internet History made almost exclusively of images he finds on Webshots. The photos range in topic, but are bleak and sort of a dystopian Remember-the-Mid-2000s tribute. When I asked him if Internet History could still exist, he said he'll try Photobucket and Flickr, but "there's a distinct aesthetic that only seems to exist on Webshots."
Of course, it’s possible to save your photos, but only if you find out about this transition and log into your old account before December 1, 2012. Existing members can either download all their existing photos to save them, or migrate them over to a new Smile account. But if no action is taken, you'll lose your images forever.