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One OS X trick that makes Dropbox even more useful…

Time was, if you wanted to save something to Dropbox, you needed to move it into the Dropbox folder. Over time, this lead myself and many others like me to be proud owners of Dropbox folders that were unwieldy, disorganized, and headache-inducing.

Then, one day, I learned this trick…

First, a touch of background.

Linux/UNIX types will be familiar with the concept of a symbolic link (aka, “symlink”). While it’s not exactly like an alias in OS X, it’s quite similar in practice. In a nut, a symlink is a small file that links to the “real” version of that file in a different folder.

Since symlinks are ordinarily created using the Terminal, they can be a touch… inaccessible to most Mac users. This makes sense since’s it’s much easier to dork things up using the Terminal.

Under the hood, OS X looks and smells a lot like UNIX, offering many of the same applications available on UNIX/Linux (cd, cat, ls, and a whole slew of others). One such application is link—usually abbreviated as ln—which is used to create hard and symbolic links.

Oh, and for the uninitiated, ~ is Terminal shorthand for your home directory (/Users/[your username]/). You’ll see that a bit below.

Fascinating. Get to the point, dude.

Using symlinks, we can add files and folders to Dropbox without actually moving them into the Dropbox folder. They’ll be copied up to Dropbox’s servers and synced to all other devices, just like files that actually live in the Dropbox folder.

Put another way, using this trick, you can organize your files and folders however you like and keep select items in Dropbox so they’re backed up and accessible from anywhere. It’s really spiffy.

Here’s how to do it…

First, pick the folder you want to add to Dropbox. For the sake of this example, I’ve got a folder on my Desktop called “Fakery” that contains a single Markdown file. To add this folder to Dropbox using a symlink, I execute this command:

ln -s ~/Desktop/Fakery ~/Dropbox/Fakery

ln launches the link application; the -s parameter indicates that we want a symbolic link (as opposed to a hard link). Finally, we have the source and target directories.

Once I issue this command, I can look in my Dropbox folder and see that Fakery has been added and that something.md is indeed present:

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And that the file has been synced to Dropbox:

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Any changes I make to the Fakery folder will appear in Dropbox automatically. If I add another file to the Desktop folder—called somethingElse.md—that file will appear in the Dropbox folder (and be synced):

inkedmn_—_-bash_—_98×58

Other folders that might be good candidates for this trick include Documents and Photos.1

Like any fun and useful trick, this one comes with a couple of caveats:

As always, be careful. Measure twice, cut once, etc.

One more related trick: if you’re working in the terminal and you need to type the full path to a file or folder, you can easily do it by dragging said file or folder into the Terminal where you’re working…

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And it will insert the full path to that file or folder:

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Enjoy!

(Magician image courtesy of Wonderlane)


  1. You’ll probably need the Dropbox Pro upgrade to handle your photos because they’re likely both huge and numerous. ↩
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AaronHockley

I’ve used this trick a few times to symlink an app’s Application Support or settings folder to Dropbox… do it on two machines, and now your settings for that application are in sync.

PaulMinors

Hi Brett, great article as always, thanks for sharing! I just signed up for the Dropbox emails and am looking forward to learning more 🙂

George Entenman

I used to symlinks to link files inside my Dropbox folder until the day I realized that this caused Dropbox to duplicate the file online, completely unlike the way linux does it. So I stopped.

I never thought of symlinking from *outside* the Dropbox folder. I call that a “blinding flash of obviousness” because there’s no duplication on my local disk. Of course! Thanks for pointing that out!

Phil Stone

This is a very useful and well-explained tip. Thank you. One question – if I want to remove the link what would the Terminal instruction be?

Eugene Gordin

Thanks for this tip Brett. One thing to check out is Symbolic Linker, which I have used for years as an OS X service. Makes it really easy to create symbolic links just by right clicking on a file. The app hasn’t been updated in a long time, but works just fine even on El Capitan. I couldn’t find a good download so its available here from my Dropbox: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/19133/SymbolicLinker2.0v3.dmg

Dan Frakes did a writeup about Symbolic Linker in Macworld back in the Snow Leopard days (!), which you can find here: http://www.macworld.com/article/1144680/symboliclinker.html

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