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Stories: Google's Way of Organizing Your Digital Life

If you're stressed by taking numerous photos without organizing them into albums or slideshows, a Google+ feature called Stories is a way out.


Let’s face it: No one has the time to organize their thousands of digital photos and videos. Some of these files get shared in social networks, email or text messages, but most of them just pile up on phones and computers. Rarely, if ever, are they sorted into neat albums that tell a complete story about a trip or event.

Starting today, Google wants to do the heavy lifting for you with Stories, an appropriately named photo- and video-organizing feature in Google+. Stories automatically generates digital albums based on events in your life, sparing you the trouble of putting them together.

I’ve been testing a prerelease version of Stories on an Android tablet, as well as on Web browsers on computers, and in the mobile browser on Apple’s iPhone and iPad. The Stories feature is available for all Google+ users as of this morning (open the Google+ Home drop-down menu, Photos, More and Stories). The Google+ Android app update will roll out over the next few days, and updates for Apple’s iOS apps will soon follow.

I couldn’t wait to look through all of my Stories. My account backfilled the oldest images I had in my Google account from seven years ago, when I created an album titled “Easter 2007.” The most recent album, “Trip to Allentown and New York,” held images from a trip I took about two weeks ago, over a span of eight days.

I think of Google Stories like a complex cocktail that someone else is mixing for me: With high-quality ingredients and the right proportions, it’s refreshing and delightful. But when the bartender thinks she knows what I want without asking, there’s a big risk of getting it wrong, which may discourage me from regularly patronizing the same bar.

Google is one of the few companies that has the necessary ingredients to mix Stories together for people. First, it pours in your photos and videos, which can be automatically added by backing up your smartphone’s contents to Google+ using the Android or iOS app, as I explained last week. Next, Google adds its location-related data, like geotags from photos and shared location history, if you’ve opted in for this in programs like Google Maps and Google Now. It also uses landmark detection, which knows that, for example, if there’s an Eiffel Tower behind you you’re probably in Paris.

Computer algorithms study all of this and other data, trying to interpret when you travel and when you take a lot of photos at what you might classify as a notable event. Events are even auto-titled, like “Weekend in California.”

Layers of rich, thoughtful software surround Stories, making the collections feel like much more than a bunch of data slapped together. They first appear in a list, each represented by large, rectangular cover photos, along with titles and dates. Tapping on one of these opens a slowly panning full-bleed image that makes you feel like you’re watching a Ken Burns documentary, with your life as the subject. One of my favorites was from last Christmas: A cover shot of my father-in-law cradling my infant son as sunlight trickled in on them through a nearby window.

Click the arrow in the bottom-right corner of the cover photo and you’ll start navigating through the Story, following a timeline — yes, it’s an actual line, and it sometimes includes time stamps — along which photos are displayed, some layered on top of one another, as if they were laid out on a coffee table. Days are divided by their own labeled pages, which each have an artistically blurry version of a photo from that specific day filling the background.

When possible, Stories also fill with maps, like an animated map that showed my flight from Baltimore to Boston for Easter. If not maps, locations are identified with circular icons at the start of a Story. But, at least in my case, some of these location labels took more license than I would have liked, like a visit to my friend’s house that was labeled as a visit to the nearby municipal golf course. Some of these locations can be corrected, but some can only be deleted altogether.

But mistakes didn’t stop at locations. Google Stories had a few major blunders in my account, possibly because it was an early preview version of the product. For example, it mashed together 15 days worth of photos and videos from several events: A birthday party in Virginia, a sailing trip on the Chesapeake Bay, my house in Washington, D.C., a baby shower in Pennsylvania, more photos of my home, and a work meeting in downtown D.C. And it made all of these into one Story, titled “Trip to Pennsylvania and Maryland.”

Another Story was titled “Weekend in Arlington and Washington,” yet I hadn’t crossed the Potomac River from D.C. to nearby Arlington, Virginia, in any of the Story’s photos — even those that weren’t selected for the Story, but were taken at the same time (I checked).

Luckily, the interface for viewing Stories makes fixes easy and fast — especially in the Android tablet app that I tested. I simply tapped on titles and typed the correction into a pop-out window. Photos that you’d rather not see in a Story can be quickly nixed by tapping a blue “x” in the top-right corner. Likewise, to add specific photos that were taken around the same time but weren’t added to the Story, choose to edit the photos that are shown in the Story by selecting “Edit” or a pencil icon in the top-right corner of a Story’s cover photo. Captions are added by tapping and typing below a photo — though I didn’t see these below every image.

Some, but not all, photos that are uploaded to Google+ are treated with Google’s automatic editing, called Auto Awesome. It does things like enhancing images by adding soft shadows to their edges and creating a vignette look. Or it takes three similar photos and combines them to get one in which everyone is smiling. It even creates short animations, or GIFs, from a few still images of the same subject, a surefire way to impress friends.

These enhanced images are sprinkled throughout your Stories, and the videos and GIFs play in place, giving a little life to a collection of otherwise-still images.

Alas, the Google+ social network, which hardly anyone I know uses on a regular basis, can feel like a dead zone. I share things from it to friends and family by using their emails, not their Google+ accounts, and I suggest that people do the same with Google Stories. Links to stories can also be shared via Facebook or Twitter. Recipients of shared Stories will be able to open them without first having a Google+ account.

If you’re stressed by taking numerous photos without organizing them into albums or slideshows, Stories is a way out. It’s not perfect, and in fact has a lot of room to grow. But its interface is a pleasure to use, and people will be delighted to find their personal photos, videos and other materials there — if it’s organized in the right way.

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