After weeks of rumors, Face.com confirmed yesterday that it has been acquired by Facebook, a move that underscores the growing role of photos in the social network's growth. While the deal raises inevitable privacy concerns, it will also make photo sharing even more central to the Facebook experience. For many Facebook users, Facebook is becoming the photo album of the 21st century.
How will Face.com help Facebook? Its mission “is and has always been to find new and exciting ways to make face recognition a fun, engaging part of people’s lives, and incorporate remarkable technology into everyday consumer products.” To privacy advocates, of course, those two goals are too often incompatible.
But Facebook has been using Face.com's technology for some time, and so Facebook may have other, less sinister reasons for buying the face-recognition startup. It gives Facebook control over which other companies can use Face.com's technology while allowing Facebook to integrate that technology more deeply into its social network. And it brings into its fold the engineers who developed that technology.
Two months ago, Facebook bought Instagram and its skilled developers. The company is gradually but deliberately collecting a group of very smart people who understand photography in the age of the mobile Web.
And mobile is where Facebook needs to focus its efforts right now. In March, 300 million photos were uploaded to Facebook every day, one for every three so-called active users. That figure is only bound to increase, as smartphone manufacturers start to include eight-megapixel cameras. Photography used to be something we planned for; now it's the art of the impulse.
To aid those momentary impulses, Face.com will help Facebook users tag photos on the fly. What could be an onerous process of typing in names on a smartphone screen is now automated - to the point where people will spend far less time tagging their own photos, and far more time untagging themselves from other people's photos.
Photos, of course, are the instant artifacts of the most intensely personal moments of our lives: graduations, marriage and the courtship milestones that lead up to it, baby pictures, birthdays, and the visual remembrances of loved ones passed away. This is the heart and soul of the Facebook news feed, the things that hold a friend's attention when yet another Foursquare check-in induces boredom.
Even before the Face.com and Instagram acquisitions, Facebook was cunningly building its social network around photos. Timeline, unveiled last fall, seemed especially tailored for snapshots, retooling a news feed into a digital book of photos as chronologically faithful as an old-fashioned photo album. And when the company described its business to potential IPO investors, the first thing it mentioned was how photos created value for the company.
In other words, Facebook is cornering the market of what we used to call Kodak moments. They are becoming Facebook moments. A stark illustration of the transition: When Kodak declared bankruptcy in January 2012, Citigroup put up $950 million to keep the company going. Three months later, Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram. Which billion would you rather have spent?
Like it or not, Facebook is the new Kodak. And like it or not, the new Kodak records you as you photograph – or are photographed. The photograph has become a part of the social graph. To speed that transition, Facebook has bought Face.com.
Maybe there's another reason for this deal. The name "Facebook" seemed odd after the social network expanded beyond college students to the general population: Why “book”? It felt dated. Which is why the news of the Face.com acquisition reminded us of this quote from the (fictional) Sean Parker in The Social Network: “Drop the 'The.' Just... Facebook. It's cleaner.”
What if Facebook were to drop the “book”? Just... Face.com. That's cleaner still.