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Inside the trillion-dollar selfie industrial complex

Mike Elgan | June 5, 2017
It's time to take selfies seriously. That front-facing camera is a doorway to the future of big business.

Google Photos is very good at recognizing individual people in photos. And it has lots of data, thanks to the selfie craze.


DeepFace technology

Facebook's DeepFace technology goes even further. Its ability to recognize faces is reportedly better than the FBI's technology, and better than the ability of humans to recognize faces.

Facebook can recognize people even when their face isn't showing. (It looks at contextual clues — clothing, lighting, background objects — in a selfie, then recognizes those contextual elements in other shots where the user's face isn't visible, still identifying the person even with head outside the frame or with back turned.)

Most interestingly, Google and Facebook solicit user help in putting names to faces, in Google's case with user labeling of face-based albums and in Facebook's, with tagging.

The user benefit with Google Photos is better search. Once you've identified that a specific person is Janet and another is Mark, you can search for "Janet with Mark" and Google Photos will show you all photos where both appear.

On Facebook, the user benefit is that it's easier to share photos with people by simply tagging them.

(The fact that other people on Google Photos and Facebook can match your face to your identity without your knowledge or permission is surprisingly uncontroversial.)

The most explicit example of "selfie capitalism" yet is Amazon's Echo Look smart speaker product. Large numbers of people take pictures of themselves every day after getting dressed to share on social media. Using hashtags like #mirrorselfie #outfit #ootd (outfit of the day) and others, they post "outfit selfies" for the purposes of both self-expression and friend-and-follower feedback.

Amazon created a version of its smart speaker designed to make this process better by offering consistent lighting, voice control and A.I. that helps customers choose outfits. In the process, they're blazing a trail to a world where selfies and shopping are the same seamless behavior.

Google, Facebook and Amazon are just well-known examples of a much wider phenomenon, which is the mainstreaming of consumer data extracted from the pictures those consumers take of themselves. Hundreds or thousands of companies are working to mine this rich source of consumer behavior.

Beyond user convenience, the value to Google, Facebook and Amazon for users to identify faces is immeasurable. Photography is an incredibly rich source of data which, when combined with machine learning and other A.I., can speak volumes. With selfies, companies can figure out age, gender, sexual orientation, relationships, hobbies, location and many other factors useful for providing personalized services, and super effective targeted advertising.

I talk about selfies in the abstract. But the classic selfie is by far the richest source of user data there is. It shows the user's face up close, who they're with, what they're doing, what they're wearing, what they care about and where they are. That's user-data gold mine for businesses looking to monetize user data.


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