The purchase price was shocking at the time, but the financial transaction, it turns out, was the easy part. Much harder was integrating the start-up and its 13 employees into the world’s largest social media company, a process business writer Sarah Frier meticulously chronicles in “No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram.”
When they launched Instagram almost 10 years ago, Systrom and Krieger had little idea their app would someday have 1 billion active users a month, mint celebrities, start trends and come to generate a quarter of Facebook’s revenue. The two men, both Stanford engineers with an eye for design and a tendency toward perfectionism, were simply trying to design a product they thought people would love.
But they were also catching a wave, writes Frier, a tech reporter for Bloomberg News. Instagram was built for mobile just as our phones were taking over our lives and as those phones’ cameras were vastly improving in quality. Almost immediately, the app started growing at a pace its creators could barely keep up with.
When Zuckerberg looked at Instagram, he saw its potential. So, applying the build-it-or-buy-it mentality of corporate survivalism, he bought it. Actually, he wasn’t the first to think of that. Twitter was quicker off the mark, but Systrom rebuffed its overtures, even though Twitter founder Jack Dorsey was a friend and one of Instagram’s early boosters. Systrom’s rejection of Twitter provides one of the book’s many fascinating subplots.
Zuckerberg, true to his motto, moved fast, but he didn’t break Instagram. Moreover, he promised the founders that he would let them run their product independently within Facebook, a pledge that he kept against all expectations. Until he didn’t.
Under Facebook’s ownership, Instagram grew dramatically, as did its global influence, in both positive and negative ways. Celebrities used it to endorse themselves and products. Ordinary people became “influencers.” Young people, though, faced pressure to present their lives as perfect on the platform. Misinformation found a home on Instagram. It was also found to be a marketplace for illegal drugs.
Frier captures the power Instagram came to wield in society even among those who didn’t use it. Public spaces became “Insta-worthy.” Coffee shops didn’t just make beautiful latte art, they arranged their decor with the app in mind. Even dogs and cats have become Instagram celebrities.
The author deftly weaves Instagram’s cultural impact into what might otherwise be a cold-eyed business story, adding rich texture and context, and giving us non-billionaires something we can relate to. But the book’s narrative power — and it’s told in a narrative voice, relying on interviews with hundreds of employees and others close to the companies — rests in the human drama among the whiz kids navigating Silicon Valley’s tricky crosscurrents.
The book is also leavened by entertaining details, like when a certain pop icon got locked out of the app before it had a system for resetting passwords and had to call the company to verify himself. At one point Systrom saved actor Ashton Kutcher and entrepreneur Joshua Kushner from a burning ski lodge in the woods. Frier also tells of a bizarre incident with Zuckerberg’s dog in the middle of the Instagram negotiations.
Through it all, Zuckerberg comes off as both predictable and mysterious. In several instances, Frier bluntly calls him paranoid about anything that might threaten Facebook’s dominance. Her portrayal also suggests a chief executive who was deeply conflicted when it came to Instagram, pushing his new property to grow while also worrying that its growth was cannibalizing Facebook.
Six years after the acquisition, tensions with Zuckerberg made working for him impossible for Systrom and Krieger, and they left. Was it all worth it? Without Facebook’s massive infrastructure, would Instagram have ended up in the start-up graveyard with other smart ideas that lacked funding, good timing or luck? Did Zuckerberg originally want to embed Instagram into Facebook’s platform, only to later accept that it would be more successful on its own?
The answers are unknown, and unknowable, but not irrelevant. At a time when social media companies are being scrutinized by regulators and the media, suspected of focusing more on their bottom lines than the interests of their users, Frier’s book is an instructive case study. It also matters for future app developers, who might be building the next thing that falls into a tech giant’s crosshairs.
Frier wanted to pose such questions directly to Zuckerberg, but Facebook wouldn’t make him available for an interview. For starters, she’d wanted to ask why Facebook sought to acquire Instagram. In response, the company sent her only an anodyne answer, attributable to Zuckerberg: “It’s simple. It was a great service and we wanted to help it grow.”
Frier seems disappointed, and justifiably so, with the response. But with its focus on the growth of Instagram, as opposed to its future commitment to the product or the satisfaction of its users, perhaps the statement conveyed more than it intended.
The Inside Story of Instagram
By Sarah Frier
Simon & Schuster.
327 pp. $28