But there’s a problem with Dropbox, one that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had a roommate. Actually, anyone who’s had more than one roommate.
If you have one roommate, the house stays pretty clean, because there’s accountability. If I see dishes in the sink, I know who left them there. I am unlikely to leave dishes in the sink, because I know that my roommate will know it was me who did it.
Add a third roomy to the scenario and an important thing happens: Now I can’t be certain whose dishes those are in the sink. I might be tempted to leave dishes in the sink myself, because no one roommate will know with certainty that I’m the messy culprit. Instead of accountability, I now have just enough anonymity to be a slob with impunity.
It gets worse. As soon as one dish gets left, and it most certainly will, the next anonymous roommate will almost certainly add his dish to the mess. The sink is already full of untraceable dirty dishes, what’s one more?
I share Dropbox folders with a great many people, and the only ones that ever sprawl out of control are the ones I share with more than one other person. It’s become enough of an issue that I decided to write up my three rules for a tidy Dropbox.
Name your Shared Folder Something Non-Stupid
With Dropbox, you can share a folder with one or more other people, and this becomes a synced folder on both of your computers. This is one of the fundamental awesome Dropbox features, and it’s where people immediately go wrong — by naming the folder something that makes sense to them, but not to the person with whom they are sharing it.
I have countless shared folders in the top level of my Dropbox directory called “Stu,” “Stuff for Stu,” “Red Giant,” “Client,” “Files for Stu,” etc. These folder names made perfect sense to the person making them, on their hard drive, but on mine they are criminally useless.
Thinking of a folder name that makes sense for all the people accessing it is surprisingly hard, but I have a system that I use, and that I wish you would too if you ever share a folder with me. I name all my folders “Stu & ______”, with the blank being filled in with the name of the person or organization with whom I am sharing the folder. My favorite part of my Dropbox is the long list of folders that look like this:
- Stu & Aharon
- Stu & Atomic Fiction
- Stu & Ben
- Stu & Gus
- Stu, Aharon & Harry
- Stu, Mike & John
There are two things that this naming scheme is accomplishing. First, and this is always the guiding principal when naming shared folders, it’s the simplest possible expression of what’s actually going on. The primary feature of this folder is that it is shared among these people. No need to call out a specific project or event — that can be done with subfolders.
Second, since my name is first, you can assume that I “own” the folder. I invited you to it, not the other way around. I’ll set the tone for the organization within the folder, delete old files, and delete the folder if we don’t need it anymore, not you. If you want to wear the pants in a Dropbox folder, create one called “Handsome Reader & Stu” and invite me to share it.
Or pick another system and stick to it. The point here is that when you’re creating that shared folder, you’re naming for two — or more.
Within That Folder, Use a System
Now that you and I are sharing a folder, the name of which makes good sense on both our drives, let’s make sure the contents of the folder make equal sense. There are an infinite number of ways to organize projects, but one technique I come back to again and again is the idea of “from” folders with a date in the name. I’m I’m sending you new files via Dropbox, I’ll first add a folder called “From Stu” with today’s date tacked on the end. I’ll format the date YYMMDD, so that it will alphabetically sort in chronological order. So you might see folders like this:
- From Stu 110519
- From Stu 110602
- From Stu 110609
Within each of these folder are the files I sent you that day. If I need to distinguish among posts on the same day, I’ll add alphabetical suffixes to the dates:
- From Stu 110610a
- From Stu 110610b
- From Stu 110610c
That’s what I do. You might like something else. But as the owner of the folder, you decide. Set the precedent early and watch your collaborators follow suit without you even having to ask.
Do the Dishes
There’s only one thing left to say, and that’s simply to clean up after yourself. Like the dishes, this is all about accountability. Since it’s now clear who owns each folder, and who posted what within those folders, it’s also clear whose responsibility it is to tidy up. Remember, if you delete something from Dropbox and want it back, you can restore it from the web interface — so there’s no reason not to be ruthless.
I Can’t Believe I Read This Far
I know, this is nerdy stuff. But when you share files via Dropbox, you’re sharing what many people consider to be their most personal living space. Dropbox is wonderful, but there’s a slippery slope from collaboration Utopia to file frat house. Be a good Dropbox roommate.
on 2011-06-10 08:03 by Stu
@klavr adroitly pointed out on Twitter that you can rename shared Dropbox folders, and that the new name will only be visible to you. So you can share a folder with me called “Files for Stu” and I can rename it to “My Friend is an Idiot.” But I don’t like this feature, because it means we no longer have identical file paths. You call me up and tell me your latest awesomeness is in Dropbox in the “Monkey Sauce” folder and now I have to remember what I renamed that to? I bought a computer so I don’t have to remember stuff.
Still, it’s a powerful feature of Dropbox and one you can use to impose tidiness on an unruly roomy.