When a billion people log on to your service in a single day, you know you’re having a massive impact on humanity. That’s one in seven people on the planet. But it also means that you have a huge challenge on your hands: how to keep them coming back, and how to keep improving their experience when they do come back.
Last Tuesday, the day after Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had reached a billion visitors in one day, Facebook introduced South Africans to a new service designed to enhance the sharing culture that is at the heart of the social network’s success.
Called Moments, it’s described as “a private way to share photos with friends”. It groups photos on one’s phone based on when they were taken, and uses facial recognition technology to identify the people in the photos. Friends can then synchronise from the same event, choosing with whom they want to share and sync. In the process they receive photos from the same event taken by those friends.
In a blog post when it was first launched in the United States in June, Moments product manager Will Ruben explained the thinking:
“With a phone at everyone’s fingertips, the moments in our lives are captured by a new kind of photographer: our friends. It’s hard to get the photos your friends have taken of you, and everyone always insists on taking that same group shot with multiple phones to ensure they get a copy. Even if you do end up getting some of your friends’ photos, it’s difficult to keep them all organized in one place on your phone.
“Syncing photos with the Moments app is a private way to give photos to friends and get the photos you didn’t take.”
As with most new Facebook products and services, Moments has been rolled out on a staggered basis, beginning in North America in June and finally reaching South Africa two months later.
“We’re excited to be launching it in many more countries around the world,” Ruben said in an interview this week. “It will also be translated into many more languages.”
A key aspect of Moments is that it is not integrated into Facebook itself, but is what Ruben describes as “a totally separate experience from the normal Facebook experience”. That’s because it’s a product of Creative Labs, a division of Facebook that, it says, “is crafting new apps to support the diverse ways people want to connect and share”. However, it is generally regarded as the space where small teams have free reign to experiment with new apps and options.
“Our group came together to solve a specific problem,” says Ruben. “We’ve all experienced those times when we’re hanging out with friends and take pics and say we’ll send them later but that never happens. It’s too hard to share lot of photos with a small group of people. You also have big group shots where everyone has their own version because they each had it taken with their own phone cameras.”
Sharing in Moments, he stresses, is totally separate from sharing on Facebook: “It’s you, your pics and your friends. By sharing in this way, it increases the chance of getting that pic you know was taken but you didn’t have on your own phone.”
The facial recognition technology at the heart of Moments may seem intimidating to those who have heard of such techniques being used for law enforcement. However, Facebook has been using it for several years already, as the basis for recommending which friends to tag in photos users post in their timelines.
Moments takes this a step further not in terms of technological advance, but in terms of how the technology can be put to use. Aside from identifying faces, it also synchronises them, links them up between friends’ albums – where they have accepted the link – and offers suggestions for who is in what pic.
“Moments also organizes pics in other ways,” says Ruben. “You can see all the pics you received in chronological gallery view, like a camera roll, but with a higher signal to noise ratio than a camera roll, because it not only syncs those pics that you took with friends, but also contains other people’s photos.
“I have 1400 photos of myself, and 1300 of my girlfriend, mostly because other people have synced photos of myself they’ve taken. I also have five pics of my brother Andrew he doesn’t have yet, so he can just press the Check button and he has five photos of himself he wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
The coup de grace for Moments is that it can automatically make a movie of the best photos in a particular “moment”, for example to tell the story of a wedding. The user can choose from a number of themes, and the app creates photo transitions to beat of music, making for what Ruben calls “a high quality sharing experience”.
The movie can be edited quickly, with photos added or removed if the app missed key images or added unwanted ones. The entire movie is then instantly recalibrated so that the music still keeps time with the images.
Aside from putting a good few existing apps out of business, Moments is also an answer to an increasingly common question in social media: Can we ever get enough of sharing? For now, the answer seems to be “No”.