But Richardson isn’t a bystander reckoning with the ills of technology: She was one of the 13 original employees working at Instagram in 2012 when Facebook bought the viral photo-sharing app for $1 billion. She and four others from that small group now say the sense of intimacy, artistry and discovery that defined early Instagram and led to its success has given way to a celebrity-driven marketplace that is engineered to sap users’ time and attention at the cost of their well-being.
“In the early days, you felt your post was seen by people who cared about you and that you cared about,” said Richardson, who left Instagram in 2014 and later founded a start-up. “That feeling is completely gone for me now.”
The catalyst for Richardson’s decision to quit Instagram came when its co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, unexpectedly announced that they were leaving the company. With their exit, Richardson and other former Instagram employees worried Facebook would squash whatever independent identity the company had managed to retain.
She sent her goodbye to Instagram the next day.
Even in Silicon Valley, where it’s common to hear start-up workers become frustrated with management after an acquisition, the disillusionment of the early Instagram employees is striking: People seldom swear off or criticize the product they built, particularly when it has enjoyed such remarkable success. Instagram reached 1 billion users this year.
The people who worked at social networks long saw the connection and free expression they facilitated as a powerful force for good and evidence of the contribution they were making to society. For them, the public questioning of the role social networks play in democracy and in individual lives, sparked by concerns over privacy and health, is deeply personal.
Three of the early Instagram employees, including Richardson, have deleted it — permanently or periodically, comparing it to a drug that produces a diminishing high. One of the people said he felt a little embarrassed to tell people that he worked there. Two of the other early employees said they used it far less than before.
This shift is part of an existential crisis for Facebook, which has seen a slew of top executives resign this year, including the leaders of its major acquisitions: Oculus, WhatsApp and Instagram. Some people are also abandoning Facebook: It lost 4 million users in Europe in the last six months and growth has plateaued in the United States.
The Instagram employees, including Richardson, said they hoped their concerns would not be dismissed as nostalgia and would be seen as a call to future entrepreneurs to recognize these pitfalls and build something better.
“There was so much pressure to do things that ‘scaled,’ to use the Silicon Valley buzzword,” said Josh Riedel, the third employee after Systrom and Krieger. “But when you have over a billion users, something gets lost along the way.”
Ian Spalter, Instagram’s head of design, said in an interview that experiences on Instagram are subjective — one person’s frustration may be another person’s pleasure — and that the app was not designed to be a time-suck. “We’re not in the game to have you leave Instagram feeling worse off than when you went in,” he said.
One of the departed founders of a company Facebook acquired, WhatsApp’s Brian Acton, has actively encouraged people to delete Facebook, though he is still a proponent and a user of WhatsApp. (He is also funding a rival messaging app.) Other former Facebook executives have expressed regrets about the products they built. Instagram’s Systrom continues to champion the service but recently said of his departure: “You don’t leave a job because everything is awesome, right?”
When Richardson joined Instagram in February 2012, at age 26, the former art history major was drawn to what was then a fast-growing indie platform for photographers, hipsters and artistic-types who wanted to share interesting or beautiful things they discovered about the world. At that time, Instagram was “a camera that looked out into the world," said one of the company’s first engineers, "versus a camera that was all about myself, my friends, who I’m with.”
Richardson ran the start-up’s blog as well as the official @instagram account from the company’s offices in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood. Before there were software algorithms suggesting accounts to follow, Richardson selected featured Instagrammers by hand. For the most devoted users, she organized in-person “Insta-meets” in places as far-flung as Moscow and North Korea.
“We felt like stewards of that passion,” Richardson said.
One of the first people she featured prominently was an early Instagrammer in Spain. The exposure Richardson gave @IsabelitaVirtual, an amateur photographer whose real name is Isabel Martinez, helped Martinez become one of the most popular Instagram users in the country and led to a career in high-end fashion photography.
Both say that type of random connection that resulted in their friendship is hardly possible in the current iteration of Instagram. Too many people to follow, too much showmanship, too many posts flickering by, they say. “I don’t even see her posts anymore,” Richardson said. Martinez told The Post that while she wouldn’t quit Instagram for professional reasons, the app has in recent years become more anxiety-producing than pleasurable for her.
Even in the early days, Richardson was aware that the app had a dark side. She was one of the first content moderators and spent many days and weekends culling through pornographic and other undesirable images that sprung up as the app grew.
A few months after Richardson started her job at Instagram, Systrom announced to the dozen employees that the company had been acquired by Facebook — taking everyone by surprise. The entire team got in a bus and drove about 30 miles south to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, where Facebook employees broke into applause as they entered the building. CEO Mark Zuckerberg took them into his office, where he welcomed them excitedly and assured them that they would maintain their own unique identity.
Richardson said she was excited but apprehensive. The details of the acquisition were still murky. Ultimately only Systrom and Krieger walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars; Facebook offered other early employees small signing bonuses and limited Facebook stock grants for staying on. And Facebook had a reputation for alienating users with its privacy scandals, including charges it had settled with the Federal Trade Commission the previous year for sharing people’s personal details that they thought were private with app developers and the public.
A few months later, the team was officially installed in Menlo Park, where Instagram was given a separate area on campus to work.
Its employees were seen as the cool kids on campus. They had figured out how to make a smartphone-only product go viral, something Facebook was still struggling to accomplish ahead of its impending public offering.
But there were things Facebook wanted to improve about Instagram. Facebook’s growth team — an influential unit whose goal was to identify and implement measures to acquire users and keep them engaged — came in and picked apart every feature of the app, three of the former employees said.
No detail was too small. The team helped fix Instagram’s clunky sign-in process, which was leaking users. It borrowed techniques that had worked on Facebook, like sending users an email alert about their friends’ activities when they hadn’t used the app in a while. They rolled out photo-tagging, much to the frustration of Instagram employees, who felt these features were too associated with Facebook and would fall flat with Instagram’s user base, said four of the employees.
The photo-tagging feature triggered “emotional anxiety,” said the early engineer. “It introduced a whole new dynamic.”
Richardson’s team of about six employees, which was focused on managing Instagram’s most passionate power users, was also targeted for change. Facebook told them that in order for the product to scale to a large audience, software tools would need to replace manual processes, Richardson and two former employees said.
Richardson said she was taken aback, “not because of the boldness of it or because of how crappy it made me and my contribution feel, but because of the misunderstanding of what we were trying to do.”
She began making plans to leave and resigned in 2014, along with most of the employees The Post spoke with. By then, the app had more than 200 million users, compared with roughly 30 million at the time of the acquisition. Three of the original 13 employees are still at Instagram or Facebook, according to Facebook.
Instagram moved to an algorithmic feed in 2016 — prior to that posts were in chronological order — and software is now doing much of the discovery on behalf of users, feeding them tailored content. The Stories feature, added the same year, introduced a flickering element to Instagram’s design by automatically reloading new stories in a carousel. The result of these changes and others prior to it was increased follower counts, produced larger social networks with weaker ties, and more time spent in the app.
Richardson, who is a big fan of hedgehogs, found herself looking at many more of them on Instagram. “I clicked on one, but then I get dozens, which is more than my brain can possibly manage,” she said. “It takes all the agency out of it.”
Spalter, the Instagram design chief, pointed out that Instagram’s rapid growth has required the company to build tools that will assist people in finding posts and users. “We have a billion people,” he said. “That means we have content from every weird niche interest, and we have made it easier for you to find things. That’s also the beauty of having a much larger community.”
Instagram is aware that its software was offering up too much celebrity content and content from people with large followings at the expense of posts from people who users know personally, according to Spalter, who joined Instagram in 2015. The company has rejiggered the software to adjust the balance, he said.
“Managing that balance is critical to Instagram’s future. ... If you feed gets overrun with celebrities, you won’t feel comfortable sharing content with your friends anymore,” he said. “I get how, in the early days, when you’re connecting with everyone, that’s very special. We’re at a different phase of development at this point, and it’s a different world in that way. But it’s still a place where people connect.”
He added that Instagram released tools in August to help people manage the time they spend on the app.
Richardson says that content on Instagram is now “too eager for your attention.” Before, “you had to make an effort to find someone, and that meant something to you and to the people you found. Today I’m amazed by how little honor each piece of content is given.”
After leaving Instagram, Richardson traveled around the world, meeting Instagram users whom she had connected with online. She eventually settled in New York City, where she founded a start-up called People & Company, where she helps nonprofits and businesses, including Nike, find ways to connect with their audiences online.
She says she wasn’t thinking actively about Instagram until late September, when news broke that its founders were resigning — once again taking most of their employees by surprise.
Richardson was flooded with memories. She remembered first meeting Martinez, and all that had changed since. She called up a friend from her Instagram days, and they concluded that Instagram no longer had value in their lives. Together, they decided to quit. She composed her last post while sitting in her car.
“It feels like we’re all addicted to a drug that doesn’t get us high anymore,” she said of the decision. “So I wanted to make space for something that really does.”