Why ‘Sharing’ a Dropbox folder doesn’t always work – and how to fix it

Dropbox (http://www.dropbox.com) is an amazingly useful product. I use it a lot, and I rely on it a lot.

But I had a real problem with it – sharing a folder with a new work group lately just wouldn’t work. We couldn’t figure out why. Nothing looked wrong, but updates to the original files we’d shared around never appeared.

The back story

I’ve had a folder set shared across all my various Macs and IOS devices for ages, and I’ve had another folder shared with some colleagues for months – all working perfectly, with file updates from any of us turning up for everyone else. Brilliant.

A few months ago, I started using Dropbox with a new group of people I’m working with, and to facilitate that process, we set up a new Dropbox folder and shared it around.

At least, thats what we thought we had done, but it just didn’t work.

We got all the original files shared around, but over the coming weeks the complaints began. Updates weren’t turning up. Key files we needed for meetings didn’t appear for others. We had got this wrong, but it didn’t look wrong.

We’d try sharing the folder again. All the new files then turned up in a fresh copy of the folder with a different version number. However, further updates still just… didn’t appear.

Head scratching ensued. I know this works for my other folders, so why isn’t this new folder, that another member of my team created and shared, working for me (or the rest of our workgroup?)

Fast forward to today, when I was setting up Dropbox on a new computer under a new account here at my office, and I managed to accidentally create the same issue – the new account wasn’t seeing updates to a shared folder that a number of us are otherwise using fine (and have been for months).

I did some experimentation, and I figured it out.

In the hope of saving others the same grief, I’ve written down, here, what I’ve learned today. What I’ve learned is that Dropbox is working fine, but some aspects of the Dropbox user interface, specifically some confusing terminology, makes it easy to think you’re doing it right, when you’re actually just… doing it wrong.

The problem

The interface for Dropbox is confusing. The crux of the confusion is one, little, word:


The Dropbox user interface uses that one little word to describe two completely different outcomes that it can deliver.

One outcome offers continuous future updates. The other offers a single snapshot copy of the original, with no future updates in either direction.

The distinction is determined by the person who initiates the ‘Sharing’ operation, and if they have chosen the wrong mechanism, the outcome can be different to what you expect.

Your recipient gets your files, and all looks good. But your recipient will never see any future file updates, and nothing they change will be reflected back to you.

If your intention is to collaborate within a workgroup and this happens, it can obviously be a significant source of frustration. If you’re trying to convince a new group of people about how cool Dropbox is, this tends to get in the way of that outcome too!

Time to delve into Dropbox terminology to understand what is happening.

Dropbox has two fundamental ways to provide access to files:

a) Sharing a folder

b) Sharing a link to a folder

The confusion stems from the fact that Dropbox uses the term ‘Sharing’ to describe two entirely different outcomes.

In my view, Dropbox should call the second choice Sending instead of Sharing (as in: “Sending a link to a snapshot copy of a folder”, and then things would be a lot less confusing.

Sharing a folder results in an environment where all future changes in that folder are shared to all participants dynamically.

Sharing a link to a folder results in the recipient obtaining a moment-in-time snapshot of the sender’s folder and contents, an ‘uncontrolled copy’, that is dissociated with the original sender’s folder.

This is why the latter can be used to deliver files to people who aren’t actually Dropbox users – and its a darn useful feature, as an alternative to (say) emailing large attachments around (including to non-Dropbox users), if that is what you actually want to do.

Further confusion is created by the fact that the recipient of a link to a folder has the option (if they are already using Dropbox) to ‘Add’ the link to their Dropbox environment.

Doing this creates the visual impression that full (bilateral) sharing has been engaged – the files appear in your directory structure precisely as if you’d bilaterally shared them.  But you haven’t.

How it happens

It is the originator of the sharing process that controls this, not the recipient of the invitation.

Indeed, if you see a link invitation in email, its already too late – and you need to get the sender to go back and do it ‘the other way’.

One of the reasons its easy for the sender to get this wrong is that if you browse your filesystem via your Dropbox.com home page, there is a ‘link’ option that helpfully appears to the right of each folder you move your mouse over. Thats the wrong choice, right there, just begging you to click on it!

The rule to apply – as a sender

If you want to offer dynamic-update access to a folder and the approach you’re taking to do it uses the word link anywhere, stop… you’re doing it wrong 🙂

Instead, go into the ‘Sharing’ menu on the Dropbox.com web page and use the ‘New shared folder’ button to initiate sharing of a new folder, or select your existing (already being shared) folder from the provided list under that ‘Sharing’ menu and invite others to join you via that mechanism.

You can also share a folder from the Mac OS X finder directly:

From the Mac OS X finder, right-click on the folder inside the Dropbox area, select the Dropbox context-sensitive submenu, and you’ll get three choices:

  • Browse on Dropbox Website
  • Share Link
  • Share This Folder…

Again, that wrong choice is hovering there in front of you, namely ‘Share Link’.

The right answer is ‘Share This Folder’… and again, the confusion is caused by both options using the word ‘Share’. They look like sort-of the same thing, but they’re actually quite different.

How to tell the difference – as a recipient

If you get an email invitation to access a Dropbox link, but you really wanted to dynamically share their folder, then your sender has got it wrong – don’t click on the link, all you’ll wind up with is a moment-in-time copy.

Instead, tell the sender to delete that pending link at their end (via the ‘Links’ menu on their Dropbox.com home page) because they are doing it wrong.

Next, ask them to try again to share the folder by using the ‘Sharing’ menu on their Dropbox home page to do it, and by specifically avoiding any approach that uses the word ‘link‘ to do it.

If you do not get an email invitation, but if instead your Dropbox client pops up on screen and tells you someone has shared a folder with you, then – huzzah! – the right thing has happened.

Its the absence of that email invitation that is the success factor here (!)

Now, you can simply accept that invitation via the Dropbox client.

Alternatively, you can log in to your Dropbox.com home page, where you will see the invitation waiting under the ‘Sharing’ menu item (Not under the “Links” menu!)

On that ‘Sharing’ page, just view and accept your ‘New shared folder invitation’.

The folder that turns up is now a properly shared one, with dynamic updates between all participants.

How to unscramble your current eggs

If you’ve already been doing this for a while and you’re not quite sure what files in your local Dropbox folder are links and what are being truly ‘shared’ (in both directions), here’s how to find out:

Start at your dropbox.com home page.

Under the ‘Sharing‘ menu, you can see what folders you are fully sharing (automatic updates).

You can add and remove people from existing shared folders here, and you can create new shared folders from here to invite people into.

Under the ‘Links‘ menu, there are two separate tabs:

  • “Your Links”: This lists links you have created and emailed to others to access. If you’re done with some (or all) of them, delete them from here to invalidate the links previously sent out via email
  • “From others”: This lists links you have accepted from others, and you can delete them from here to clean up your world a little when you’re done with them.

Note also that you can be (truly) sharing a folder at the same time as you can be the recipient of a link to an older version of the same folder. They will show up with exactly the same name, once under your ‘Sharing’ menu and once under your “Links” menu.

You can delete the ‘link’ entries with impunity as they have no impact on the operation of the (truly) shared folder of the same name.


In the end, this was a lightbulb moment thing for me – I just hope this helps someone else avoid having to find that lightbulb from scratch.

I also hope that Dropbox improve this terminology in their service in the future, reserving the term ‘Sharing’ for one option, perhaps moving to a word like ‘Sending’ in association with their ‘link’ feature.

It might also be nice to add in a few relevant warnings here and there (including in the email invitation for a link) to make it clear that the link approach isn’t actually offering an update service for the files concerned.

This so might other Dropbox users to avoid the head-scratching that I (and surely others) suffer from as a result of all of this.