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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

In praise of Shared Albums: The social network antidote

Social networking in the modern era is more than just a double-edge sword: it’s a spinning wheel of blades that provide only occasional respites of joy amongst a thousand paper cuts of indignity. But it also provides utility that can be hard to find elsewhere. Case in point, upon the arrival of my firstborn child, I found myself trying to figure out the best way to share photos with a variety of family members, near and far.

My Facebook and Instagram feeds are both replete with family pictures, and had this kid arrived a decade ago, I might not have hesitated in sharing photos there. These days, I’ve got a natural hesitation to post anything sensitive on social media, especially those owned by Meta, which seems to be increasingly bent on finding ways to outdo itself in distasteful behavior.1 And as someone with a moderate-sized following, I also think twice about putting my kid’s face out there in the world, especially when they’re too young to have a say in it. Though I have posted a few pictures of the kid on Instagram and even Twitter, in those rare cases I’ve relied on the excellent MaskerAid by noted podcaster and developer Casey Liss to maintain some degree of privacy.

Shared Album Activity

But for everyday photo sharing, I turned to a much smaller solution that has proven to be delightful in its simplicity: Shared Albums in Photos. While all the limelight these days is being sopped up by their newer fancier relative, iCloud Shared Photo Libraries, a Shared Album has turned out to be the perfect way to provide the feel of a social network…but with only people I know. And like. Shared Photo Libraries might be the ideal solution for an immediate family looking to pool pictures, but Shared Albums still have their place: they’re a much better way to distribute a selected subset of photos amongst a larger audience than Shared Libraries allows (but not one as large as a social network.)

Our Shared Album includes me and my wife, as well as a half-dozen close relatives, including both sets of grandparents, all of whom get notified when new pictures make their appearance. Like a social media network, people can leave comments or “like” pictures and because it’s such a small and handpicked group of people, we don’t have to worry about things like content moderation. No strangers are dropping in to dunk on our pictures, and if the relatives try it, well, we know where they live.

My wife and I have taken great joy in curating the pictures we post, which as a plus can also include video and Live Photos (an Apple technology that doesn’t work very well on any other social network). Relatives have told us in person that the stream of baby photos is the highlight of their day2—and when was the last time you could say that about social media?

Room for improvement

Shared Album Comments

Of course, handy as this feature might be, there’s still a few places that I feel Apple could make the experience even better.

Better notifications: As it stands, my wife and I each get notifications when somebody comments on our pictures that we’ve made, but I’d like at least an option to get notified when people comment on pictures that I didn’t post, so I can see what the family’s saying about that photo my wife uploaded without having to go check each time.

More robust responses: Apple offers a single paltry thumbs up “like” item for photos, but I’d love to see a couple more options: a heart, or a laugh—basically a version of Messages’s Tapbacks feature. Sure, any emoji can be posted as a comment on a photo, but sometimes you just want a quick and easy way to register something more than 👍.

More granular permissions: Currently there are only two roles for Shared Albums: owner (the person who creates the album) and subscriber (everyone else). It’d be nice to add a role in between, like a “manager” or “contributor”, allowing me to designate only certain people who can add media to the album. As it is, either you can allow all subscribers to post, or none.

Better sorting and filtering: There are a few sorting and filtering options in Shared Albums, but the former are mostly based on date, and the latter only really lets you filter by media type. I’d like to be able to filter by who posted something, or even where it was taken or who was in it. I’d also like to have a better overview that breaks up pictures into more easily digestible chunks, the same way the All Photos view does, allowing you to quickly flip through by month or year.

Editing photos: Once you’ve uploaded photos to Shared Albums, they’re frozen in amber. Which means if you want to tweak it, adjusting the image or, say, adjusting the effect on a Live Photo, you have no choice but to delete it and re-upload it, losing any comments the original might have garnered. In conjunction with those better permissions, Apple could make it easier to tweak photos you’ve uploaded.

Home screen widget: I enjoy the home screen Photos widget, which surfaces pictures from the For You section of the Photos app; it can be a nice way to revisit pictures you might have forgotten.3 But it would be great if I could pick a specific set of things to rotate through: say, pictures from just this specific shared album. The new customizable Lock Screen offers a ton of this kind of functionality that Apple should import into its simplistic home screen widget too.

I’m not sure how much interest Apple has in improving Shared Albums now that Shared Libraries are the new hotness, but to me they fill very different use cases. And perhaps with the social media apocalypse that’s now upon us, there’s a renewed interest in the ability to share things with only a small group of people that you know and trust.


  1. “Hold my beer,” says Twitter. “At least, I think it’s a beer. I threw up somewhere earlier!” 
  2. My mother will frequently text me if no new pictures have made their appearance in short order on a given day. 
  3. Or that trip to New Orleans you took in December 2018

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]

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