When should I use the word upload and when should I use download?

What is the difference between the words download and upload?

I’m asked these questions frequently. I have 3 answers that I offer.

  1. It doesn’t matter if you use them properly. Go ahead and use the words.  People will understand what you’re trying to communicate even if you pick the incorrect word for a given situation.
  2. Rather than worrying about which word is correct, just avoid the words and use alternatives. Using either copy or move will work in most situations. For example, rather then saying “There’s a problem downloading photos from my digital camera to my Mac.” you could say “There’s a problem moving photos from my digital camera to my Mac.”
  3. Finally, here’s a direct answer to the question. Use download when you’re talking about moving files (such as song files, pictures or Word docments) onto your local computer. Use upload when you’re talking about moving data off of your local computer. For example:

“Yesterday, I downloaded pictures from my digital camera onto my Mac. Then I uploaded them to my Flickr account so my friends would be able to view them.”

I should probably add a bit more clarifying detail. Historically, uploading referred to moving files from your local computer to some remote, typically larger, shared computer. Downloading referred to moving files from a shared, remote computer to your local, peripheral computer. So, one typically uploads from a smaller device to a larger device. Thus, one uploads files from a personal computer to a fancy server computer like the ones that comprise Flickr.  So, I think one could also say that one uploads files from a camera to a computer even though in my example above, I used the word download to talk about moving files from the camera to the Mac. It’s easy to see why people get confused about how to use these words, so why not just avoid these words and use move or copy!

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