Instagram isn’t completely broken, but no one seems to want to fix it (image: Tina Tiller)
Instagram isn’t completely broken, but no one seems to want to fix it (image: Tina Tiller)

MediaNovember 12, 2020

The riveting and troubling story of Instagram’s first decade

Instagram isn’t completely broken, but no one seems to want to fix it (image: Tina Tiller)
Instagram isn’t completely broken, but no one seems to want to fix it (image: Tina Tiller)

No Filter, a superb new book chronicling Instagram’s rise, reveals more about the pathology of Mark Zuckerberg than anything else, writes Duncan Greive.

As with many of the tech companies that went on to blithely mess with society, at first there was nothing but starry-eyed idealism. Instagram founder Kevin Systrom was an aesthete, moved by the world’s beauty, who sought to create a place in which those similarly transfixed could share their photographs. It would allow fans of hiking, architecture or pedigree dogs to document their interests with other enthusiasts around the world in a simple, clean and uncluttered environment. Early account holders did just that, with investment and more mainstream users soon following.

Flash forward to the present day and Instagram is, by many measures, wildly successful, the emblematic social network of the smartphone age – and ridiculously profitable. But the simple, clean, community-minded space Systrom envisaged is gone. In its place is one which has a number of malignant issues it appears chronically unable to solve. 

Instagram has been cited by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health as the worst app in the world for the mental health of young people, with its highly manicured visions of life prompting anxiety and depression through what it called “compare and despair” usage. Influencer culture exploded through the past decade, with everything from unlabelled advertising, to anti-vaxxer content, to Covid-19 disinformation to QAnon conspiracies rife on the platform. More narrowly, it became a widely used marketplace for opioids for years, and was implicated in black voter suppression during the 2016 US elections.

Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom addresses a press conference in New York on December 12, 2013 (Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

It contains multitudes, like all social networks, and does a lot of good or benign things too. Yet the thing it is best at now is making money, not spending that money on fixing its long-running problems. So, after years of watching it drift from what they imagined to what it became, its founders Systrom and Mike Krieger left Instagram a couple of years ago, giving all the appearance of being utterly disillusioned with what had become of the company.

What happened? Facebook happened. No Filter, Sarah Frier’s pacy and brilliantly sourced history of Instagram, is haunted by the fateful 2012 decision to sell up to Mark Zuckerberg on almost every page. In the years that follow, the culture of Facebook (which seems to be really just an extension of the personality of its CEO) gradually smothers what was different and special about the photo sharing app. While the founders were manifestly complicit, along with the whatever-it-takes Silicon Valley atmosphere, Zuckerberg’s gravity exerts a constant pressure on its younger step-sibling, one it proved powerless to resist.

The deal of the century

It’s easy to forget now, but Facebook’s purchase of Instagram, in 2012 for US$1bn in cash and stock, was widely ridiculed. The company it acquired had just a dozen employees and no revenue. There were already a number of photo sharing services in the world, some with a lot of money behind them. Eight years on, and it’s clear this was one of the most far-sighted deals in corporate history – as Facebook’s own business matured, the explosive growth of Instagram allowed it to continue to massively expand its reach and influence through the second half of the 2010s. Along with its acquisition of Whatsapp a few years later, Facebook hoovered up potential competitors before they could achieve sufficient scale and thus cemented its position as by far the most dominant player in social media. 

The irony is that in the early days Systrom didn’t much care for Facebook. He was much more interested in and active on Twitter, whose CEO Jack Dorsey was one of Instagram’s earliest and most influential users. Dorsey also let Twitter’s users easily find their friends on Instagram, providing a huge boost to its early growth. For a while there, it seemed that if any company would invest in or acquire Instagram, it would be Twitter. It didn’t work out that way, as Dorsey was easily out-manoeuvred by a less sentimental opponent in Zuckerberg, who opened negotiations and closed the deal with awe-inspiring speed – a pace and intensity of work that would be great to see applied to some of the long-running issues on all his platforms.

It’s easy to forget now, but social media pre-Instagram was very different. User-generated content was still in its relative infancy. There were few influencers and millionaire YouTubers, and the only platform celebrities had embraced with any great fervour was Twitter. It’s interesting to imagine what might have happened had Twitter won the bidding war – while deeply imperfect, it has often beaten Facebook to innovations like post-suppression and ejecting persistently troublesome users. With Instagram riding sidesaddle, the two networks would have given Facebook a worthwhile opponent, and, as analyst Scott Galloway has suggested, potentially had a business incentive to create a less toxic environment by way of differentiating the product. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2019 (Photo: Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)

It didn’t happen – but it took some time before the new owner’s intentions became clear. For the first few years Instagram was largely left to its own devices, physically separated from the voracious growth-centricity of Facebook, tucked away in a small building alongside the carpark on Hacker Way, Facebook’s giant campus. It was still early days for the app-based world – there was a significant and now laughable fear at the time that Facebook would not figure out a way to monetise its audience on phones and tablets, which briefly depressed its stock price.

What Zuckerberg was doing, both with the app audience, and with Instagram, was concentrating on growing the audience at all costs, trusting the now-inarguable truth that once scale is attained, the network effects of sufficiently large groups of users become an impassable moat for competing companies. Only then did he turn on the ad products, and start printing money.

Through that relatively unmolested era you saw the stubborn, clear-eyed design and UX thinking of Systrom. Instagram power users and Facebook execs begged for a regram button, saying it was the best way of allowing its audience to grow, and therefore commit to the platform. Systrom and his team dug in, viewing it as antithetical to the more considered way they wanted its feed to work. Frier recounts this happening over and over, in ways large and small, but eventually the desire for growth, and the Facebook DNA-level desire to crush competition became all consuming. Nowhere has this ever been more visible than in its dealings with Snapchat.

He’s just a jealous guy

Snapchat’s founder Evan Spiegel is the one that got away for Zuckerberg, who resisted his courtship and thus became a target. The creation of Instagram’s smash hit second format ‘stories’ – a simple hijacking of Snap’s signature feature – was a direct response to Spiegel turning him down. No Filter marks that as the point at which Systrom seems to cave to Zuckerberg’s desire to control Instagram, and use it to exact his revenge on Spiegel for daring to resist his embrace. That Facebook is increasingly subject to scrutiny for anti-competitive behaviour is hardly surprising – it’s more a case of “what took you so long?”, and has been happening in plain sight for years.

The irony is that the company which bore the brunt of Zuckerberg’s competitiveness over the past decade was probably Instagram itself. The most compelling theme of No Filter is the one way psychodrama between Zuckerberg and Systrom, whereby Facebook’s CEO persistently starves Instagram of resources and forces it to fold Facebook into deals against clients’ will, motivated more by vanity than business logic, it seems. These sections really hum – the signature flair and tone of BusinessWeek, where the author Frier has spent much of the last decade reporting, soaks into the prose, which is deft in its structure but never over-reaches its material.

Systrom emerges ultimately as a somewhat naive and tragic figure, someone who seems to really believe in the good intentions of his acquirer, and not truly realise his powerlessness until far too late. It’s possible this is an overly generous reading, and that he or someone close to him is a source for No Filter which has helped create that impression. But it seems to scan with the extensive public record of Zuckerberg, probably the single most influential figure of the 21st century.

No Filter is not quite the instant classic of modern Silicon Valley that John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, the Theranos story, was – largely because the story doesn’t yet have a natural end point. It also lacks for the visceral villainy of Mike Isaac’s Super Pumped – Instagram’s impact is mediated by a screen and at a certain remove, whereas Uber had to look its demons dead in the eye and choose to ignore them. 

Despite that, the ubiquity of Instagram, particularly among young people, gives it a reach and power which make its decisions and omissions incredibly consequential. There are many things about the platform which are admirable, from its function as a tool to politicise and organise young people, to the way it has allowed thousands of small businesses to start with far lower levels of investment than might have been required in the past. The balance of good and terrible in large tech firms makes figuring out a true sense of their contribution to society very difficult. Reviews like this, and media coverage in general, invariably focus more on the bad than the good. Still, it’s difficult to escape the sensation that, much like its parent, Instagram has been far more concerned with chasing growth than patching the known issues for its community.

Other chronicles of the misadventures of tech and capital in the 21st century are chiefly diverting for what they reveal of their sociopathic creators. Instagram’s is different, because Systrom and Krieger scan as relatively centred human beings. Unfortunately, because it was acquired by the most fearsomely detached figure in all of technology, its ultimate fate seems likely to be one and the same.

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