#71 The Picture Taker
July 27, 2016
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Rachel was a faithful user of a photo storage website called Picturelife, until one day all of her photos disappeared. As she investigated, she realized that every Picturelife user was having the same problem. Alex tries to find out if there's any hope of getting her photos back. Also, a preview of the new Gimlet show, Science Vs!
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PJ VOGT: Hey This is PJ with a quick note before we start the show. So we have a bunch of new listeners this week and we wanted to recommend some Reply All episodes from the archives that we’re really proud of that you all could check out if you wanted to. If you’re not a new listener, you could probably skip ahead a little bit right now.
Ok, so, there is our On the Inside series, which is a story about Paul Modrowski--he’s a blogger, he’s also a convicted murderer--and he spoke to our reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni for over a year. Um, he claims that he didn’t commit his crime and Sruthi looked into it.
Um, we have an episode called “In the Desert.” This is an episode where I got to Atlanta to figure out what glitch in the matrix has caused huge groups of people to keep showing up at this one couple’s house, angrily accusing them of being cell phone thieves. We actually figured out what was going on.
There’s also “Zardulu” which is about Alex’s investigation of a woman who claims to be covertly training rats to star in staged viral videos. It’s bonkers.
Finally, uh, “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” is an episode where we, uh, experiment with LSD. So go check those out, go check out the whole archives. And welcome to the show.
PJ: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ: Before you worked in podcasts, you were an I.T. man.
ALEX: Yes I was.
PJ: And sometimes on the show, people write to us with technical support questions and we try to solve them for them. Specifically--typically--you try to solve them for them.
PJ: It’s called Super Tech Support--there’s a theme song.
[Super Tech Support Theme]
PJ: You have one this week. You have a Super Tech Support case.
ALEX: Yes! So, I got an email from a listener named Rachel, she lives in New York City.
ALEX: And she’s having a big problem with this app that she uses called Picturelife.
ALEX: Yeah, it’s this app that, like, automatically backs up all the pictures you take on your phone or put on your computer to the cloud. It’s tagline is … hold on, let me find it, it’s tagline is, “Forget hard drives. Give up on organizing filenames. There's a better way to find and share pictures.”
And Rachel’s got these two little girls--they’re one and three--and she takes millions of photos of them. So, when she found Picturelife, she absolutely loved it.
RACHEL: This sounds totally like I’m a lunatic, but I’m not organized. And it really was this good feeling of, “I am being so responsible that I am paying for this really lovely service that’s doing this amazing thing for me,” and it just worked. It just worked!
ALEX: Rachel also really liked this feature that Picturelife had called “Memories,” where every once in awhile, it would send you an email which was like, “Hey--here are some photos from this date but, like, from a year ago or two years ago.”
PJ: It has nostalgia built into it, like it--
ALEX: And I think that that’s very appealing to people, people who … I--
PJ: It’s appealing to people with kids. ‘Cause it’s like, “Oh my god they’re growing so fast!”
ALEX: Yes, that’s exactly who it’s appealing to.
ALEX: I was trying to dance around that for some reason.
PJ: Uhh … you’re tired of identifying as a father all the time?
ALEX: I’m tired of being pegged so quickly as a father. Like, I’d like for people to think, like, “Oh, Alex Goldman is a guy, he has a radio show, he’s really into music …”
ALEX: “He has a guitar.”
ALEX: Wh- people are like, “Alex is this dad. He also has a radio show.”
ALEX: Anyway, Picturelife! So …. the problem is … that one day she goes to log into Picturelife and it’s just not working. The site is down. And it stays down for a couple of days. Like, it’s just--she can’t access it. No one can access it, it’s just gone.
And then, after those couple days, the site comes back up but when Rachel would go into Picturelife, what she would get is not her images, she would get this very strange ... what looked like where the photos were supposed to go, but instead of photos being there it was just like … colors. Solid colors.
ALEX: Here I’ll show you a picture.
ALEX: This is the interface.
PJ: Oh wow. Yeah, it looks like paint swatches.
ALEX: Yeah, and she keeps going back to the website clicking around to see if there's a way to download her photos--just get them off of the service. That's not working. She tries contacting the company, a company, that she said, used to have really good customer service, and she's just not getting any response. She 'd it's just like a black hole.
PJ: Oh god…
PJ: Was she freaking out at this point?
ALEX: Yeah! She was totally freaking out.
ALEX: Let’s say all of your pictures are gone li- what--what have you lost?
RACHEL: Th-(kind of laughs) that--the idea that they’re gone is so horrifying. I have created this incredible record of the lives of these two little girls up to this moment. And so to lose it would just … be truly heartbreaking.
ALEX: I would lose my mind if I were in your position. I have a 16-month-old son. If I didn’t have a million pictures of that kid, I’d go crazy. This is so har- this sounds so ch- I feel like i’m turning into a Hallmark card whenever I say this, but like, childhood flies by. And the thought of not having the hundreds upon hundreds of photos I have of my son ... it makes me feel like a little, it like makes me choke up a little bit.
RACHEL: That’s exactly it! It’s almost … there’s this crazy thought I have where I think, “What are the photos that I don’t even remember taking … that are now gone?” Because I love these kids so friggin’ much. That I just--I don’t wanna--I want it all saved. I want to be able to look at it. I want to remember it. And the idea that it is gone or that … I- that it was carelessly lost? I just … uhhhh … it’s the - I’m--it’s beyond the worst.
PJ: Ugh … I feel like I know how she feels. When I was a kid … I was really excited about recording things, like recording songs off the radio, recording Simpsons albums off TV.
ALEX: Simpsons episodes?
PJ: Yeah! Sorry. Simpsons episodes off TV. And I recorded over, like, a not-insignificant amount of our, like, irreplaceable family home movies with, like, “Treehouse of Horror 7” or whatever.
PJ: And it makes me feel so bad that, like, I can’t think about it.
PJ: ‘Cause it’s gone. It’s just--gone.
PJ: And that was like … this is so much worse (giggles) because it’s not … they had every reasonable expectation that the pictures would be where they left them.
ALEX: Yes, exactly. It’s like, if you pay for the service, you expect it to do what it says it does. And, like, this service has just swallowed everybody’s photos whole. So I’m gonna go see what’s going on.
[Super Tech Support Theme]
PJ: Ummm, OK, so Alex, what did you decide to do?
ALEX: So the first thing I did was--I just wanted to see if Rachel was the only person having this problem or if everybody who was using Picturelife was having the same issue. And--yes. (Laughs) Everybody is having the same issue.
If you go to Twitter and search, “Picturelife,” at about the beginning of April you start to see people who are saying that they’re having the same problem as Rachel--that they can’t see their images and that they can’t download their pictures. And then, if you keep scrolling, people just start getting more and more panicked and more and more angry.
And they’re saying that Picturelife is not responding to their customer support tickets; there’s no way to download their photos. People are just totally stuck. And, for the most part, Picturelife is just not responding at all.
PJ: So it’s like everybody who’s lost their photos is, like, standing outside the castle and they’re screaming at the photo service inside the castle to please help them and whoever runs the photo service is just, like, an imperious king who’s, like, not even listening to the cries of the commoners below.
ALEX: Right. So, that’s the way it was for quite a while and then on May 5th, Picturelife tweeted--all caps--“IMPORTANT MESSAGE ...” and then in lowercase, “... we have an issue with our hosting company your photos are safe …”
PJ: Oh no….
ALEX: “... we’ll keep you posted. sorry about the silence.”
PJ: That is sooo not calming. Like, you don’t acknowledge the problem, you just say it’s not a problem.
ALEX: It feels like someone trying to cover their butts.
ALEX: So, I decided to look into this company and the first thing that I found out was that Picturelife was founded by three guys a few years ago--like 2011--and then in January of 2015,s it was sold to to a company called StreamNation.
ALEX: And then in March of this year, StreamNation basically said, “We’re closing down but we promise that Picturelife will keep going.”
PJ: So they said that in March--
PJ: --and in April everything stops working.
ALEX: And ... this is when it gets really interesting.
ALEX: When I was looking around into this issue, I found a Facebook group, which is all people who are having the same problem that Rachel’s having, called “Picturelife users.” There’s about a couple hundred people in there. And all of them are just, sort of, commiserating, asking each other what’s going on, seeing if anybody’s heard back from the company.
And one of the people who is in that “Picturelife users” group, is this guy Charles Forman, who was one of original co-founders. So Charles has over 20-years-worth of digital photos. And the reason he was on this Facebook group is because the only place where a bunch of those pictures are saved is--
PJ: On Picturelife?
CHARLES FORMAN: Unfortunately, I uhh … mo- the majority of the photos that I have are … are exclusively on Picturelife.
ALEX: And how--how many photos is that?
CHARLES FORMAN: 93,000.
ALEX: Oh my god. 93,000.
CHARLES: Yeah, yeah. It’s--it’s the worst feeling because… it’s--these are memories that you captured and you can go back and look and they evoke so many memories. These things are--these things are priceless and now they’re--now they’re gone.
ALEX: And so I asked Charles, like, “What are you gonna do with your pictures from now on?”
CHARLES: I am going to save them to a hard drive on a RAID system, which means it’s, uh, it’s like physical set of disks in my apartment. I just feel like I cannot--I can not trust … I can’t trust cloud services anymore.
ALEX: As a person who founded a (laughing) cloud service that’s, like, a really big thing to say. That’s, like, a really big statement.
CHARLES: Well … you can’t count on really anything in this life, but to--to place your trust in a company … um, that doesn’t have your best interest at heart, I think, uh, especially when it pertains to, you know, memories that you have and - and the photos that you have--it’s not … it’s--it’s not the best, (laughs) not the best idea right now…
ALEX: So, when Picturelife went down, Charles--who, remember, the founder and former CEO of Picturelife--was having the exact same problems and same anxieties about his photos that thousands of other Picturelife users were having.
But what Charles had which no other Picturelife users had was the contact information for the current CEO.
PJ: Got it.
ALEX: So, Charles contacted the current CEO, who basically like, “Oh we’re having a little trouble, but everything will be fine.” It was, like, exactly the same as the tweets they were sending.
PJ: (laughs) He just got like the handcrafted, personal--
PJ: --“Don’t worry about it.”
ALEX: So … I said to him--I was like, “Can you forward me the correspondence you had with the CEO?” Like, it’s this is--I’m shooting the moon here, but I’m going to send the guy an email--
ALEX: See--see if he’ll talk to me. And 10 minutes later, he got back to me.
ALEX: Can you do me a favor and, uh, tell me what you had for breakfast?
JONATHAN BENASSAYA: For breakfast, I had coffee, I had a waffle with nutella. (Laughs)
ALEX: I see, uh, that sounds pretty good, honestly.
JONATHAN: Well, I’m having the same breakfast as my three other kids.
ALEX: (laughs) I see...thanks for doing this--I really appreciate it. Um ...
JONATHAN: Any- anytime and anything for our users
ALEX: This is Jonathan Benassaya, the guy who bought Picturelife, and the one person who might be able to provide us some answers.
JONATHAN: Let me tell you the story from the very beginning. So first, as you can hear, I’m French?
JONATHAN: I, um, had the chance to found the music service called Deezer.
JONATHAN: Which is one of the most famous in Europe.
ALEX: And Jonathan told me that after this big success he had with Deezer, he moves to California.
ALEX: And he started this company called StreamNation. And StreamNation was a site where you could store your movies, like, in the cloud, and stream them from the cloud.
But he always wanted a picture component to the site. So, when he found out about Picturelife, he was like, “Great. I’m gonna buy this company, I’m going to integrate it into StreamNation--it will become the one location where people will store all their movies and their photos.” Like, the ONE THING you need.
So, Picturelife is trucking along, he’s got like 18 employees, but then, in February, a round of funding that Jonathan thought was basically a sure thing fell through. So Jonathan ending up having to shut down StreamNation.
But Picturelife already has, like, a built-in user base, it’s been going for a couple of years, so he decides to keep Picturelife going.
The problem is the place where all of Picturelife’s pictures are stored, which is a data center called a “colo”--Picturelife is in debt to this data center. And they want Jonathan to pay up.
JONATHAN: And - and - and this is when things started to go--to go south. Um, so, I had to pay the debt. The company had not enough money to pay the debt. So … I have, uh, personally loaned money to the company to pay the outstanding debt.
ALEX: But then he got bad news from the people who run the data center.
JONATHAN: Then they ask us to decrease the footprint of the platform by two-third [sic] in 60 days. What does it mean? It means that Picturelife was running on 120 servers--
JONATHAN: --and we had to, uh, bring it down to 40.
ALEX: And so, he had this decision to make, basically. Which was, he could either put up a thing that says, “Hey, I’m shutting down Picturelife. You have 60 days to get your stuff, otherwise it will be totally deleted.” Or, he could try to save the company. So … he crunches the numbers and he says, “I think I can do this. I think I can move everything down to just 40 servers.”
PJ: If you said that to me, if you said, like, “The place where you store all your memories … I think I can save it.” I’d be like, “Give me my money back. Give me my pictures back.”
ALEX: But imagine you are a Picturelife user that has 50,000 photos on there or something and you check in on it once every 90 days. There’s a great chance that you would have missed that window and you would not have been able to get your photos off.
PJ: That’s true.
ALEX: So, Jonathan furiously got to work trying to move all of these pictures. The problem is, he had to move everything so fast that he couldn’t update the database that said where the photos lived.
PJ: I don’t understand.
ALEX: So, imagine a library loses its lease and has, like, a couple days to move to a new space. And, so, in order to move in time, they just toss all of the books in the back of a U-Haul without any concern for order, and then they move to the new space.
It’s like, all the books are still there, but they’re totally out of order. So, if you ask the librarian, like, “Hey, can you help me find To Kill a Mockingbird? The librarian doesn’t know where to look.
The librarian is, basically, the database in this situation. Like, it knows the pictures are all still there, it just doesn’t know where to look for them. So when you go to the website, what you’re seeing are just blank s- are just these color swatches. So he basically had to break the service to save the service.
PJ: I gotta say though a- and, like, you know, he sounds like he is doing the right thing or whatever, I … my nightmares are more people who are like, “I got this! I don’t need to explain it. I’m going to fix it. I’m not going to tell you what you need to do to protect yourself, ‘cause I got this.” Like … I actually think those people--not that he’s doing a lot of damage here--but I think those people often do.
ALEX: Yeah. I - I agree. And, at the very least, he could have just, like, let people know what was going on.
JONATHAN: I definitely didn’t do a good job communicating with users, but there is no more employees in the company. Uh, I am the only one. And I was so focused on trying to find solutions that I forgot to d- to deal with the daily, uh … the daily routine, and, uh, and this is gonna be, uh, changed pretty soon.
ALEX: What does it feel like to be in that situation? Trying to keep this company that you just bought afloat with this sort of massive technical issue that you are dealing with?
JONATHAN: Well, the feeling is that people are trusting you with their memories and you’re not able to give them a straight answer and … and on the other hand, you have to make sure that they are not shutting down the server and deleting all the files. And on the other hand, you need to fund the company with your personal money while you have three kids at home and you need to make sure you don’t--you don’t take too much risk with your family, and … uh, and you try to find a solution to find a new home with the company.
So, I would say--to be honest with you--it’s been a nightmare for me. Um, and, uh, I am now in a position where I know that Picturelife will be back in a couple of weeks the way it was before.
ALEX: Jonathan says that it’s gonna take about four weeks. Four weeks and all the photos will be restored.
ALEX: I guess that--I guess that wh- what I’m thinking right now is, you have a user base that has been unable to access their photos for two months.
ALEX: They are frustrated. They feel like they haven’t been communicated with. What makes you think that once you get everything back to normal they’re not just going to migrate off of your service?
JONATHAN: That’s fine. I mean … life is a trade off. And, uh, I prefer those guys to leave with all their content than, uh, a- than them leaving without their content (laughs).
ALEX: Right… I see...
JONATHAN: One thing, Alex, that I think would be also a lesson for everyone.
JONATHAN: We always need a backup. In any case. We always need a backup--a backup plan. And, uh, for my case, uh, beyond Picturelife, uh, I use a service which costs me five dollar a month. It’s unlimited. It’s on all the computers of--of our home.. It’s like a dumb storage. Everything is there. And it’s my backup.
ALEX: So … I mean, the thing that I - I guess, as a consumer, seems strange to me is, like, Silicon Valley does not advertise as, like, “Use our service-- also use a backup.” You know? The Silicon Valley is always, sort of, advertising, “This is the only solution you’ll need!” Should we just be more skeptical than that?
JONATHAN: (laughs) Uh … yeah. I mean, you need to always be skeptical about marketing in general. (laughing) I’m telling you that because I’m the one telling you that, “You only need one thing.”
ALEX AND JONATHAN: (laughing)
PJ: What do you then say to Rachel? Like, the person who actually wanted you to fix this?
ALEX: I--I got in touch with her and I told her what Jonathan told me.
ALEX: I - I’m curious ... how you feel about this guy and about Picturelife after hearing everything I’ve told you?
RACHEL: Th- the comforting thing to me is that there is a human being at the center of this. So, I would say I’m--that … hearing all of this makes me cautiously optimistic.
ALEX: The other thing that he said, which I found fascinating, was, basically, “Don’t trust the service. Don’t trust any service. Any of these services that we use. Google drive, Amazon, whatever.”
RACHEL: Yeah, I mean that’s … totally insane. That is not--that makes no sense to a normal human being.
RACHEL: You pay for a thing because you trust that the thing is the thing that you’re paying for. That actually just … taxes my sense of the world in a way that’s not--I don’t want to live th-(laughs). Like, I’d rather, like, go to the drug store and print them all out, I guess. You know what I mean? Like, c’mon with this three backups. That’s so stupid.
PJ: It’s like all good advice. It’s like, “Yes. You should use the cloud and also have a redundant backup on an external hard drive. And then, you should take that external hard drive and put it in a safe deposit box and put that safe deposit box in the care of a private army.” Like--I’m gonna save stuff on my desktop and when it goes away I’m gonna be angry and sad.
PJ: I lost a file this morning.
ALEX: No one is--no one is that well organized.
PJ: I mean, there are people who are that well organized and they’re like, “You’re idiots.” But … whatever, they’re probably drunk drivers or something.
ALEX: [laughing] That’s messed up man.
PJ: I just mean, everybody … everybody thinks the risks that they take are fine and the risks other people take are obviously stupid. And, I think, everybody in this story acted pretty reasonably and … you now, a bad thing happened anyway.
ALEX: It’s been about four weeks since I talked to Jonathan, so I decided to call him and check in on the progress he was having with Picturelife. And he sounded a lot less stressed out than he did in our first conversation.
JONATHAN: Yeah, so, thank you, Alex, for reaching out. Progress moving forward, uh, constantly. Consolidation is in--uh, is done. We are fixing the database. Already, millions of files have--have already been fixed. Uh, everything is working smoothly. Um, slower than expected. Uh, but it’s moving forward.
ALEX: And he said, “We’re about 20 percent finished--”
PJ: 20 percent?
ALEX: “--with fixing the database.” But he says, “Really, don’t worry. The photos are definitely on their way. Everything is going to be fixed.”
JONATHAN: I feel good about the future of this thing so … stay tuned.
ALEX: Alright. Um, well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
JONATHAN: Well, we started this relationship. So, that’s the way it should be.
PJ: I feel skeptically optimistic about this and I would like you to keep keeping track of it.
ALEX: I totally will. Uh, Rachel--all you Picturelife users out there--I will stay on top of this. I will let you know if there are any updates.
PJ: After the break … uh, a lake that is on fire. Yeah. Stick around.
ALEX: Welcome back to the show. Uh, we have a special guest in the studio with us right now. It is Wendy Zuckerman, who is the host of the new Gimlet podcast Science Vs. Hi, Wendy.
WENDY ZUCKERMAN: Hello. Hi, Alex.
PJ: So, this is a big week at Gimlet, everybody's very excited because ... last year, you were making Science Vs. in Australia--it was a popular thing that people really liked--you were kidnapped by Gimlet, brought to America--
ALEX: What was the weirdest part of American culture that, like, you were not prepared for?
WENDY: Waffle fries?
ALEX AND PJ: (laugh)
ALEX: What--what's weird about waffle fries?
WENDY: It's just so American! You know? Y- (vague American accent) "waffle fries!" Like--
WENDY: --it's so good.
PJ: Somewhere, like, a bunch of Australians are like, "Yeah!"
PJ: "This makes sense to us too!"
WENDY: (laughing) Because, like, you already have a waffle. And you already have fries. Why would you need to mix them?
PJ: You guys have animals that have pockets on them.
ALEX: He has a point.
WENDY: Unrelated! Unrelated!
ALEX: Yeah, but I feel like that totally robs you of the ability to descri--to talk about what's weird and what's not.
PJ: Um … so ... Science Vs. I feel like it's a show where your cultureshock about America actually comes in handy.
WENDY: Yeah, I think that's--that's true. I think … being an outsider in this strange land of extreme opinions--in the middle of an election--is a--is a very fun and interesting time to be peeling away politics and looking at facts.
PJ: Because what you do is, like, you will take topics that everybody argues about without knowing very much about ... and, like, actually walk through the facts of them?
WENDY: Yes. Yes, and we ... and that is one thing--I may not be the best at a lot of things ... I'm definitely not the best at a lot of things, but I am very good at knowing where my biases are coming in and just kicking ‘em out. And just saying, "This is--we just need to talk about the science." And that is something that I feel like is missing from a lot of the discussion that we have about the topics that we're hitting, hopefully, it's things like fracking, gun control, organic food, pesticides in general, big chemical corporations, things like that.
PJ: At one point, you were trying to convince me that it probably wasn't a good idea that I drink 10 Diet Cokes a day.
WENDY: Yeah, we're definitely gonna look at artificial sweeteners at some point. There's some really interesting science there.
PJ: At how they're good?
PJ AND WENDY: (laugh)
PJ: I'll skip that one. Um. OK, so the one we're gonna hear a preview of today is ... "Fracking."
PJ: Which is a thing that, I think … I have been at arguments--I've sat through argu--I don't like to argue about politics, basically. Or--
WENDY: But see, fracking shouldn't be politics!
WENDY: Like, it's a--it's an engineering ... like, there - there is science there about the risks and the ... and I guess the only politics is where we want to invest our money. The fact that you, that y- your first connection to fracking was, "I don't like to get involved in politics."
WENDY: Is an interesting thing in itself.
PJ: I've had arguments in my family that started about fracking and ended with people mailing ... “people” mailing other people ... Chernobyl pictures.
ALEX: Wait, emailing? Or--
WENDY: See! That--that is exactly ... that is exactly where Science Vs. fits in. That is c- like, what--what was the link? Did--between fracking and Chernobyl? Was it just, "When industry goes awry. When we don't put money in renewables." I b- I could see these tenuous connections, but I could also see how this big domino effect of opinion and little fact might have kicked into your family's conversation.
PJ: As a person who sent the pictures, I can not remember why I sent the pictures.
PJ AND WENDY: (laughing)
ALEX: I was just waiting--I just really wanted to ask who it was who sent them.
PJ: Of course. Of course, of course. You knew. You knew in your stupid heart.
PJ: I can't even remember what side I was on. Do you land on a "it's good" or "it's bad," or do you land on a, like, "If you think it's anything, here's why you should think it"?
WENDY: Well, I think when there is ... I don't want to give it away, but when there is a lot of science for something--or not a lot of science for something--then we come away telling you exactly what that situation is. With fracking ... I guess you got to wait and see. And see how you take the--the science.
ALEX: Alright! So, this is Science Vs., “Fracking.”
ALEX AND PJ: Thanks, Wendy!
WENDY: No worries, guys.
PJ AND WENDY: (laugh)
[First half of Science Vs, “Fracking”]
ALEX: That was the first half of the Science Vs. “Fracking” episode. For more, go check out Science Vs. wherever you download podcasts.
Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt, and me, Alex Goldman. The show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Benin, Chloe Prasinos and Damiano Marchetti. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. Our editor is Peter Clowney. Production assistance by Thom Cote. We were mixed by Rick Kwan.
Matt Lieber is tubing down a lazy river, towing a six-pack.
Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can listen to the show on iTunes or on any other podcast app.
Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.