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Facebook releases Moments app to rescue photos of your friends from your camera roll

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Putting face recognition to powerful use

In April, wrapping up our piece about the best way to manage your photos online in 2015, I lamented that companies didn’t seem to be taking the problem all that seriously. Plenty of internet giants were happy to store your photos, but few were really doing anything with them. And then, as if on cue, internet giants revealed ambitious new offerings. Flickr unveiled helpful new tools for uploading your entire archive to the cloud, plus machine vision for organizing it. Google Photos then matched those features and went a step further by offering unlimited, high-resolution storage.

And now here comes Facebook with an intriguing new photo solution of its own. Moments, an app launching today on Android and iOS, attempts to rescue the hundreds of photos on your camera roll that feature your friends and let you share them with a few taps. Using the face-recognition technology that powers the suggested tags you see when adding a photo of a friend, Moments scans your camera roll for familiar faces and lets you quickly "sync" them to the subject of the photo. If your friend uses the app, they will see the photos added to their own synced collection. If they don’t, they’ll get a notification on Facebook Messenger that photos are waiting for them in Moments. The app then builds a collection of photo albums featuring you and your tagged friends that you can scroll through, search, and easily rename.

Photo sharing has been a Silicon Valley obsession for more than half a decade

Like many apps that emerge from Facebook’s Creative Labs division, Moments is a new gloss on an idea that others tried first. Easy, private photo sharing with friends has been a Silicon Valley obsession for more than half a decade now, and every effort to date has ended more or less in failure. None ever really solved two big problems: they had no idea who your friends were, so you had to teach the app yourself. (Often by connecting through Facebook, making you wonder why you didn’t just share the photos on Facebook to begin with.) And they all required your friends to download a new app to see photos of themselves. It turns out your friends hate downloading photo-sharing apps. Ask Color!

facebook moments

Facebook Moments enters the world of photo-sharing, then, with two advantages over its predecessors. One, Facebook knows who your friends are. And two, Facebook is leveraging its 700-million-user-strong Messenger app to promote Moments: if you don’t have Moments installed, you’ll get a message from your friend on Messenger telling you to download the app whenever they share photos with you. Install Moments and you’ll see those photos, plus have a chance to contribute your own. If any photo-sharing app ever had a shot at viral growth, it’s this one.

Finally share all those wedding photos

Facebook says the app will help people finally share all those photos from weddings and birthday parties that have been buried on their camera rolls forever. Moments groups your photos based on when they were taken and who is in them, helping it to stitch together events using all the photos your friends contribute. (In this way it feels a bit like Apple’s shared Photo Streams, but with more machine learning.) You can save any photos synced to you on your camera roll, or share them using the native Android and iOS share sheets.

facebook moments

It’s worth noting that Moments is powered by a feature some people find creepy: Facebook’s increasingly powerful face recognition technology. I can’t be the only person to feel a tinge of discomfort when Facebook has correctly identified a friend in someone else’s photo and asked me to tag them; that same tech powers Moments, which will search every photo on your camera roll looking for people it recognizes. If you have tag suggestions enabled on your account, your friends will be able to tag and privately share photos of you with other friends using Moments. So if you don’t want your own face to be targeted this way, you may want to opt out using Facebook's settings.

"Sharing on Moments is really different."

In a demonstration, Moments was powerful and accurate enough that I wondered why it had been built as a standalone app and not as part of Facebook’s flagship. Product manager Will Ruben says it was important that Moments felt like a separate, private place for photo sharing — not a public scrapbook like Facebook. "I expect we’ll learn something from Moments that will ultimately make its way into the main app," he says. "But we’re really focused on making Moments a space on its own. The sharing on Moments is really different from sharing in other apps — it’s a much more private kind of sharing with specific friends. I think it has a space to stand on its own."

facebook moments

Perhaps because Facebook posts are shared with friends by default, it has yet to build a private photo archive service in the same way that rivals Amazon, Apple, Google, and Yahoo have. But with Moments, Facebook has cleverly leveraged its biggest advantage in photo services: it knows who your friends are. And because so many people already use Facebook, there’s less friction in sending and receiving photos than there is in most other services.

It may be that even a call to action in Messenger isn’t enough to put Moments on a meaningful number of phones. But there’s little doubt that Moments is useful, even for just rediscovering the photos you’ve always taken. And we all may be better off surprising one another with embarrassing old photos privately in Moments than by tagging each other publicly on Facebook. For a complete solution to managing your photos, you’ll want to look elsewhere. But if Moments is any indication, another internet giant is taking photos seriously once again.