Moments Are Having a Moment

Facebook, Spotify, Google, and Twitter have all seized on the same buzzword. Here’s why.


Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker

In June 2013, less than a year after he sold his photo-sharing startup to Facebook for $1 billion, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom stood onstage at a press event at company headquarters, his 6-foot-5 frame partially obstructing the oversized screen behind him. He paced slowly as he spoke, stealing the occasional glance downward, as if to summon his next words from the very core of his being (or a floor-mounted teleprompter).

“When I think about what Instagram is,” Systrom mused, “I think about moments.” We humans, he went on, “are forever on a quest to take a moment and record it forever in time. Because however long life is, or however short life is, we know we may never get that moment back.” The value of Instagram, then, is “to take meaningful moments, everyday moments, that would otherwise be forgotten in the world, and capture them forever.” He went on that way for some time before he got to the actual point of the event, which was simply to announce that people could now post videos on Instagram as well as photos.

This was not an isolated bout of verbal perseveration. The word moments featured only slightly less prominently in another Systrom press event six months later, this time announcing a new direct-messaging feature. And when Instagram reached 300 million users in December 2014, Systrom celebrated with a blog post headlined, “300 Million: Sharing Real Moments.”

Meaningful moments. Everyday moments. Real moments. Capturing and sharing moments. We get it, dude: Instagram is about moments.

But it isn’t just Systrom who’s obsessed with them, and it isn’t just Instagram. These days you’d be hard-pressed to find a mobile-Internet startup that isn’t nattering on about moments. Ask Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel what his wildly popular messaging app is really about, and he’ll tell you it’s “talking with pictures and expressing yourself in the moment.” When the dating app Tinder added its own ephemeral messaging feature, CEO Sean Rad named it Moments. Twitter rang in the new year by recapping 2014’s trending hashtags with a special page called Moments.

Perhaps my favorite “moments” moment came when Spotify CEO Daniel Ek explained to the New Yorker that his goal is to soundtrack the events of each user’s life. “We’re not in the music space,” he concluded proudly. “We’re in the moment space.”

Systrom’s boss, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is something of a moments man himself. “Social networks today are mostly about sharing moments,” he opined in a blog post celebrating Facebook’s 10th anniversary. Last June, Facebook launched an app called Slingshot—yet another Snapchat clone—with the stated aim of creating more “shareable moments.” And this week, Facebook launched its latest standalone app, which uses face-recognition technology to tag your friends in photos you’ve already taken. The app is called—what else?—Moments.

Moments, you might say, are having a moment. But what’s driving it? Why are techies so enamored of the word, and what’s at stake when they try to sell us on it?

A moment is, by one definition, a brief yet undefined unit of time, similar to an instant. But instants transpire in a flash, leaving no room for mediation or reflection. Moments are more pliable. They can stretch out and linger, and sometimes echo long after they’ve passed. Moments leave an impression.

And yet moments needn’t be, well, momentous in order to carry meaning. When Systrom and his ilk talk about “everyday moments,” they’re talking about the kind that might feel too inconsequential to blast to all your Facebook friends. Facebook was once a venue for casual status updates and insouciant photos of last night’s parties. But those have been largely squeezed out over time, both by users’ privacy concerns and by Facebook’s own News Feed algorithms, which prioritize major milestones: weddings, vacations, births, deaths, new jobs.

For social-media upstarts like Instagram and Snapchat, then, emphasizing “moments” is partly a way to differentiate one’s product from that of Facebook, the industry’s dominant incumbent. The same logic applies to the standalone apps Facebook creates with the aim of filling different niches than the social network proper.

That so many different Internet companies are all talking about “moments,” however, suggests that differentiation is not their primary aim. (Recall Spotify’s Ek declaring that his company is in “the moment space,” implying that moments are an industry subsector in their own right.) What they’re really after, I suspect, is something deeper.

In an age when there’s a computer in every pocket—and soon, perhaps, on every wrist—people have begun to sense with some anxiety that personal technology is intruding on our lives as much as it’s enhancing them. We appreciate the convenience and instant gratification of ubiquitous Internet, but we worry that it’s crowding out life’s more lasting values—values like human connection, quiet reflection, and the ability to live in the moment. Do I sound like Kevin Systrom yet?

It’s no accident, I suspect, that mobile Internet companies have seized on moments as the next front in the war for our attention. Moments don’t typically happen when we’re on our desktop computers. They happen when we’re on the go. The question, then, is whether we choose to pull out our mobile devices or leave them in our pockets.

If moments are something to be lived in or get lost in, then the smartphone is their enemy. Cameras, apps, and status updates are distractions to be eschewed. Social media engagement should plummet.

If, on the other hand, moments are something to be captured, recorded, or shared (in the Facebook sense), then the smartphone is their best friend. A moment uncaptured is a moment lost. Hence Systrom’s anxiety: “We may never get that moment back.”  

This is not just a question of semantics. Whether moments are best enjoyed in the present tense or preserved for posterity is a serious philosophical question with implications for how we ought to live. The hedonist devours his meal; the artist photographs it.

Each approach has its merits and adherents. Neither is objectively superior. But an awful lot of money is riding on Silicon Valley’s ability to sell us on the latter. Moments, you see, aren’t only of interest to the people who create and use social media. They’re also of great interest to the companies that advertise on it.

The concept gathered momentum in the marketing world as early as 2005, when Procter & Gamble popularized the phrase “first moment of truth” to describe the “three to seven seconds when someone notices an item on a store shelf.” Google’s AdWords division updated this brick-and-mortar maxim for the e-commerce age in 2011, with a study and white paper on what it called the “zero moment of truth.” The zero moment, Google explained, occurs when “a shopper goes online to research a product and decides whether to make a purchase.”

In the mobile age, however, even the zero moment may be outmoded. This spring Google launched a fresh campaign to introduce advertisers to what it claims is the next big thing in mobile marketing: the micro-moment. Micro-moments are, as you might expect, a series of incremental steps in a consumer’s online behavior that might presage a future purchasing decision. In the past two months, Google has published research on micro-moments, held conferences on them, and published op-eds in the Wall Street Journal about them. It has a whole website dedicated to them: “Want-to-know moments,” the website says. “Want-to-go moments. Want-to-do moments. Want-to-buy moments. They’re all micro-moments, and they’re the new battleground for brands.”

On its face, Google’s understanding of moments might seem disparate from Snapchat’s or Instagram’s. Whereas social media startups are asking us to share the moments we find meaningful, Google infers its own meaning from our explicitly commercial online activities. But the line between our commercial and non-commercial behaviors may be evaporating.

Twitter, for instance, has made its users’ moments a centerpiece of its pitch to advertisers. The company holds up a timely tweet by Oreo during the 2013 Super Bowl as a prototypical example of how brands can use Twitter to capitalize on “real-time moments” whose commercial dimensions might not be readily apparent. And Twitter UK last year launched a marketing drive called “Everyday Moments,” telling prospective clients:

When UK users do tweet, 55 percent of them talk about what they are doing right now, according to Nielsen. It might be they are on the platform waiting for a train, in the queue at the local coffee shop, or out for a run at the weekend. Those are chances for a brand to connect.

Moments, it seems, are the new currency of the mobile Internet. Every moment that we capture is a golden opportunity for a brand to sell us something. The more moments we record, the better advertisers can tailor their pitches to us when the next moment arises. In sales terms, moments are leads.

For now, social media companies are relying on us to consciously share our moments. But some marketing visionaries are already looking to cut out the middle man—that is, our consciousness.

In January, the New Yorker’s Raffi Khatchadourian profiled a Massachusetts startup called Affectiva that uses machine-learning software to teach computers to read people’s facial expressions. Today, it uses the software to help advertisers track and quantify viewers’ emotional response to their ads. But Affectiva co-founder Rana Kaliouby envisions a future in which devices of all kinds come with an “emotion chip” that can gauge and adapt to the user’s frame of mind. That would give advertisers direct access to our moments, which they could then turn to commercial ends. For instance, Kaliouby said Affectiva has been in talks with an advertising-rewards company whose business is based on “positive moments.” Here’s how she explained the opportunity to the New Yorker:

So if you set a goal to run three miles and you run three miles, that’s a moment. Or if you set the alarm for six o’clock and you actually do get up, that’s a moment. And they monetize these moments. They sell them. Like Kleenex can send you a coupon—I don’t know—when you get over a sad moment. Right now, this company is making assumptions about what those moments are. And we’re like, ‘Guess what? We can capture them.’ ”

Kaliouby allowed that there’s a chance people might find that just a little intrusive. She expects that notions of privacy will shift to the point that “people don’t mind or don’t care.”

We aren’t there yet. Samsung took a public-relations beating earlier this year when the Daily Beast’s Shane Harris reported that one of its Smart TVs listens to viewers’ speech and transmits their words to a third party for analysis. (Samsung later clarified that the third party was not an advertiser, but rather Nuance Communications, a speech-recognition company.)

The trick is for social media companies to convince us that capturing and sharing our moments is more important than protecting our privacy. Sure, you might be letting corporate advertisers in on your moment when you post it to Instagram. But remember, if you don’t capture it, you might never get it back!

Silicon Valley might run a slight risk, however, in working so hard to persuade us of our moments’ priceless value. If they’re worth so much, we might start to wonder why we’re giving them away.