Give Your Online Life a Lift with IFTTT

How many times have you come across a new technology or service and said to yourself, “That’s ridiculous, only a real geek would use that!”, only to find yourself happily benefiting from the same innovation a year or two later?

Well, can you say “the Web” or “text messaging” or “Facebook photo albums” or “RSS readers” or “Netflix streaming”? At one time or another, all of these technologies were limited to obscure corners of nerddom.

I confess that I still have the skeptic’s reaction all the time. To save myself embarrassment later, I’m usually private about my dismissals. (On the other hand, some of my public ones have been doozies—I viciously panned the original Kindle about a year before I got one and made it my main reading tool, and more recently, I said I’d never buy an iPad mini, which I’m already beginning to regret.) But today I want to tell you about a geek tool that I’ve been using unreservedly, and that everyone should know about. It’s called IFTTT, and it’s a great way to make your digital life a little easier and more interesting, by marrying other services that don’t normally interact.

The acronym rhymes with “gift” and stands for “If This, Then That.” As the name suggests, the service lets you set up prearranged actions prompted by specific conditions—“if this happens, then make that happen.” A specific action on IFTTT is called a recipe, and users can create their own recipes or choose from a large set of existing ones. All of them involve the communications and productivity tools most of us use every day, from e-mail to social networking to cloud storage. For example, you can set up a recipe saying, “If the weather report says it’s going to rain today, then send me a text message,” or “If I star an e-mail message in Gmail, then send a copy to my Evernote account.”

If This, Then That - diagram from IFTTT.comSan Francisco-based IFTTT was founded by former IDEO designer Linden Tibbetts, and the ingredients for the service are the site’s 58 “channels”—the online services that can either trigger an action or be the target of an action. Name a popular consumer-oriented online tool and it’s probably got a channel in IFTTT, including Craigslist, Evernote, Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, Gmail, Google Reader, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube. For people who run their businesses on more specialized cloud-based tools, there’s a competing service called Zapier that covers even more channels—138 at last count, including services like Asana, Basecamp, Chargify, HubSpot, and PayPal. Zapier charges for access to certain “premium” services, while IFTTT is totally free.

What makes tools like IFTTT and Zapier possible is the trend toward open APIs, or application programming interfaces. If the cloud economy is like a big neighborhood full of fancy homes, APIs are the doggie doors on the back stoops that allow information from third parties to come and go at will. It’s standard procedure today for developers of Web or mobile applications to publish the specs of their APIs so that outsiders know how to format their information to fit through the doors.

The liberating thing about cloud applications, of course, is that they make it so easy for us consumers to generate, share, store, and retrieve digital content, wherever we may be and whatever device we may have at hand. But having tasted this freedom, we’d like even more of it. It’s easy to post a photo to Facebook from your mobile phone, for example. Why shouldn’t it be equally easy to e-mail that same photo to a friend who isn’t on Facebook, or to store a copy on Dropbox, and to have all this happen automatically?

This kind of stuff doesn’t happen automatically right now because the major cloud applications are still mostly siloed inside the companies that own and run them. It’s not Facebook’s job to help you be a better customer of Dropbox. Instagram has no special obligation to let you share your photos on Twitter. But thanks to the API revolution, there are a few tunnels between the siloes. And IFTTT and Zapier are all about helping people navigate them.

I set up my latest IFTTT recipe a couple of weeks ago in order to bridge a gap between Twitter and Evernote, my favorite online notekeeping service. I’ll walk you through it quickly, because it’s a good illustration of the IFTTT paradigm.

I follow more than 500 people on Twitter, and sometimes they say things or share links that I want to remember for later. My goal, then, was to find an easy way to save specific tweets as new notes in Evernote.

Both Evernote and Twitter exist as channels in IFTTT, and in an ideal world, you could connect them by creating an IFTTT recipe that used some event inside Twitter (such as favoriting a tweet) as the trigger for an action (in this case, creating a note in Evernote).

Unfortunately, Twitter is not an enthusiastic participant in the open API culture. (Which is putting it mildly, and someday I’ll write a column about the hot squabbling mess that is Twitter these days.) The company doesn’t allow IFTTT to use events inside Twitter as the triggers in recipes; IFTTT recipes can only go in the other direction (if you post a status update on Facebook, for example, there’s an IFTTT recipe to automatically turn it into a tweet). So I had to figure out a less direct way to save tweets as notes.

My solution was kludgey but effective. First I set up an account on Pinboard, which was built by a former Yahoo developer named Maciej Ceglowski and markets itself as “a bookmarking website for introverted people in a hurry” (which describes me pretty well). Apparently Ceglowski is on better terms with Twitter than IFTTT is, because Pinboard includes an IFTTT-esque feature that automatically creates a Pinboard bookmark every time you favorite a tweet on Twitter.

My recipes on IFTTT

My recipes on IFTTT

Pinboard has a full-featured channel on IFTTT, so my next step was to set up a recipe using Pinboard as the trigger. It basically says, “If a new public bookmark shows up on Wade’s Pinboard account, then package up that bookmark as a new note in Wade’s Evernote account.”

So, to review: Whenever I favorite a tweet, it gets recorded as a bookmark on Pinboard. From there it’s automatically copied into a new note on Evernote. Mission accomplished.

I’ve got a couple of other active recipes on IFTTT that help tie together my favorite personal information management tools. One links Pocket with Evernote: every time I mark an article as read in Pocket, the original link for that article gets saved as a note. Another recipe links YouTube to Pocket: When I click the “Watch Later” button on YouTube, the video appears on Pocket, where I can view it later at my leisure.

IFTTT users have come up with thousands of other useful recipes—I’ve only begun to explore the possibilities myself. The most popular recipe on the site at the moment is one that automatically updates your Twitter profile picture every time you change your Facebook profile picture. (I’m a little surprised there’s so much demand for that one; I think I’ve changed my Facebook profile picture about twice in the last seven years.) The next most popular recipe is also about photos: every time you’re tagged in a picture on Facebook, it saves a copy of the photo on Dropbox.

There’s a recipe that creates an event on Google Calendar every time you check in on Foursquare, which could be useful if you wanted to keep a daily diary of your travels. There’s another recipe that creates an entry for your body weight on a Google Drive spreadsheet every time you step on your Withings scale. There’s even a recipe that offers a backdoor way to share your Instagram photos on Twitter—something you can no longer do directly from Instagram thanks to the silly, ongoing spat between the two organizations. The website Lifehacker has a great article explaining more about how IFTTT works, and listing more cool recipes.

Today’s Web and mobile services are like Lego bricks that can be snapped together to make a range of fun thingamajigs; some of these are useful and some are just geeky curiosities (like a recipe that automatically tweets “May the fourth be with you” at midnight on Star Wars Day). I look forward to a time when more elaborate recipes are possible. By chaining multiple trigger and actions together, it ought to be possible to build some truly Frankensteinian creations.

Meanwhile, though, I guess we should be thankful that there are any APIs at all, in light of the ongoing strife and competition among the major cloud providers. The great thing about IFTTT and Zapier is that they let average folks like us play around with the Lego pieces as if we were skilled developers. So, give yourself the gift of IFTTT—go try out some recipes of your own!

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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