A Clearer Picture of You

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, July 6, 2006

Digital photos have been frozen in a picture-book metaphor on the Web for so long that it's refreshing to see a new crop of sites developing the picture further.

OurStory and Tabblo, both launched in May, are among the many new sites trying to help us do more with our growing collection of digital images than just plop them into online albums.

The Web's early photo pioneers, such as Shutterfly and Snapfish, helped millions of people put their digital snapshots in online albums, e-mails and paper calendars and on coffee mugs and T-shirts. But now that digital photography has gone mainstream, people have more images -- yet still aren't sure what to do with them.

Some of the established photo sites also are experimenting with new tools and features. Newer photo sites such as Tabblo ( http://www.tabblo.com/ ) and OurStory ( http://www.ourstory.com/ ) are going further by exploring unique ways to let people tell stories with their personal pictures.

While Tabblo's storytelling is more visual, OurStory offers a lot of text options. Both employ novel presentation formats and add socializing features similar to those used by networking sites such as MySpace.

Tabblo presents photos in highly artistic collages, like what you'd expect a professional artist to create if you handed over your pictures and asked for a design to hang on your living room wall or prop up on a table. Tabblo creates the collages automatically from images you upload and lets you tweak them by choosing from various layout and style templates.

OurStory arranges your images in visual timelines designed to tell the life of a person or organization. It starts by inviting you to post photos and write captions about them, then automatically arranges them into chronological displays. To jump-start the timeline, OurStory asks questions about milestones or life's odd moments.

I tried both and found these Web programs, despite a few glitches, to be more fun ways to share pictures than the traditional album format used at established sites such as Snapfish, where I have stored many photos over the years. In fact, when Snapfish recently notified me that if I didn't buy something with those images by June 13, it would deactivate my account and delete all my online pictures, I let the account go. Other than getting inexpensive prints online, I never made much use of my pictures stored on the Web.

I was intrigued as OurStory founder Andrew Halliday described how people should use the Web to create elaborate personal archives of their lives -- and the lives of others.

Halliday and his sister, Nancy Halliday, who live in different cities, used OurStory to jointly create a visual timeline about the life of their late father, for example. Others might create an OurStory timeline to chronicle the history of a company or an event such as Hurricane Katrina.

OurStory timelines differ from blogs, Halliday said, in that they are designed to help people create permanent archives for future reference, rather than being focused, as blogs are, on "current dissemination" of their thoughts. "The truth is, most blogs that are started don't carry on," he said. "In part that is because maintaining a publishing voice is a burden."

OurStory's free accounts let users create a single timeline, including unlimited images. A premium account, at $40 annually, allows unlimited timelines. The site eventually plans to show ads on the free timelines and expand its offerings of products beyond the prints and posters it currently sells.

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