Old Dogs Learn New Tricks

Photobucket Gets a Major Redesign to ‘Take Back Control’ of Your Photos

More storytelling, less fusking.

screen shot 2012 08 16 at 7 13 38 am Photobucket Gets a Major Redesign to Take Back Control of Your Photos

Photobucket–the janky-looking, but still widely-used image-hosting site once owned by News Corp–is debuting a serious overhaul for the first time in years with an emphasis on taking control of the lifecycle of your photos and videos, CEO Tom Munro told Betabeat. With a significant redesign and new privacy controls, Photobucket hopes to best Facebook, Flickr, and the like as your default storage space to organize and share photos and soon “tell stories.”

Photobucket lurched towards a comeback last year when Twitter decided to use its technology to power native photo sharing. However, consumers might be more likely to associate the service, which launched in 2003, with eBay sellers or their LiveJournal or MySpace account. (The company claims that currently Photobucket, which has 10 billion photos, is second only to Facebook in terms of uploads.)

The changes couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Just last week, BuzzfeedGawker, and even CNN delved into the “dark art” of “fusking,” whereby Photobucket’s privacy settings could be exploited to access nude photos of unsuspecting women. Gawker featured one woman’s harrowing tale of having her parents find her boobs on the Internet. Fusking programs take advantage of the fact that the URLs you send out to friends, even in private or password-protected album, use the photos actual file names, making it easy to find others in the same ablum.

As we spoke to Mr. Munro on the phone earlier this week, naked images were still being added to the sub-Reddit “photobucketplunder,” although the moderators of that sub-Reddit and “requestaplunder” set the pages to private this morning. However, the most damning line in Buzzfeed‘s investigation might have been, “Remember Photobucket?”

“You may have seen some issues with fuskering? It’s kind of a shame in the way it’s been reported,” Mr. Munro said, pointing out that the exposed photos were predominantly from public accounts and that only 50 private accounts were violated, adding, “But even one is too many.” He also said not all the photos on those sub-Reddits were from his site. Photobucket has offered the ability to scramble URLs for years, but in the wake of the controversy, the company is being more proactive, automatically scrambling URLs for new albums, unless users request otherwise, posting an interstitial when users log in suggesting that they scramble the URLs on older albums. “Any fuskering we detect,” he added, “We immediately go in and change those settings for the user and we’re working with the proper legal authorities when this happens.”

UPDATE: This afternoon, The DailyDot reported that those sub-Reddits were taken down after Photobucket issued DCMA takedown requests for violating Photobucket’s terms of service.

Mr. Munro said the Photobucket redesign, which has been in the works since before the fusking controversy, were motivated by internal research with users and backed by an external study about photo taking and sharing habits conducted by InfoTrends. “The new Photobucket is really designed to give users secure backup, organization, and easy access, which maybe to you and me sounds like everybody should have that, but these three things–when we did our research–are really the biggest pain points for consumers, even today,” said Mr. Munro, citing a study that shows the average person takes photos on four devices and shares on five services.

“Your photos are fragmented, so backing up becomes pretty difficult. Only about 50 percent of us back-up, which corresponds to why half of us have lost photos and videos,” he added.

It’s a nagging problem. Currently, Betabeat has photos scattered around Dropbox, Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter, not to mention an old digital camera. The question is whether Photobucket will be your answer. Facebook is still the biggest player, but newly-minted Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is reportedly taking an increased interest in Flickr, which got a major makeover of its own.

The Photobucket redesign lets users connect to their mobile phone, laptop, and social networks like Facebook. Through the Photobucket mobile app, which has been downloaded 15 million times on Android and iOS, “anytime a photo hits your camera roll, it’s uploaded to Photobucket,” Mr. Munro said. (Beware the semi-naked selfies!) You can edit, organize and share on the sleeker, friendler new site and Photobucket keeps a copy of the original, undoctored image.

But the company seems to be aware that In the Time of Zuckerberg, you’re going to need a little something more to get consumers to choose you as their default. To that end, Photobucket is beta-testing a service in September that emphasizes telling “Stories,” by moving beyond the photo-with-comment-underneath structure and into a flowing, multimedia horizontal timeline–shareable with a link to other social networks. (Unfortunately, the word “story” is slightly tainted with an advertorial tinge by Facebook’s “Sponsored Stories.”)

Mr. Munro showed us a rather compelling video of how one woman used the upcoming Storytelling features to display the narrative of her son’s birth, easily sending requests to other Photobucket members to add photos to her timeline and posting comments adjacent to images and videos in the stream.

As the company said in a press release notes:

With Photobucket Stories, you can easily create, curate, and collaborate with friends, combining photos, video and text all on a single canvas that can be easily shared. No longer are you confined to sharing images one at a time or in structured album formats; with Photobucket Stories you can tell your complete story with context and meaning.

It seemed like an ideal solution for a cabin trip in the Catskills we went on last weekend that left photos from the trip fragmented across a dozen different smartphones, Facebook pages, and Instagram accounts. Of course, then we’d have to convince those dozen people to sign up for Photobucket, in addition to everything else.

You can see if it’s worth it yourself. Here’s a an invitation to try out the beta for stories, open to the first 50 people who sign up.

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com