How a new book about Instagram changes our understanding of the founders’ departure

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Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger quit — but only because they were managed out of the company

Today let’s take a break from discussing our global pandemic to talk about one of my favorite books of recent months: Sarah Frier’s No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagramwhich is out today. It’s a meticulously reported, beautifully told story about one of the most successful apps ever created. No Filter is, at root, a marriage story — one about the union between Instagram’s precocious cofounders and Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. And while we have known for some time now that the marriage eventually went bad — Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger stepped down from their roles in September 2018 — No Filter fills in many of the details. And, along the way, it changed the way I thought about how Facebook acquires companies.

The narrative about Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram up to now has been something like this: Zuckerberg sees a fast-growing new social app, offers it a then eye-popping $1 billion, and brings the team aboard with a promise of near-total independence. Instagram attains outsized success, but that independence wanes over time, eventually resulting in a rupture that sent Systrom and Krieger packing.

The chief insight that Frier brings to the story of Instagram in No Filter is that Instagram’s vaunted independence began to evaporate from the start. And it’s not because Facebook immediately began pressing its thumb on the organization — Zuckerberg really did insist that it be left alone, particularly in the early days. Rather, it’s because Instagram was a tiny organization of just 13 people, and the company needed Facebook’s resources to stay afloat. As the organization grew, it retained a distinct identity much longer than most corporate acquisitions. But it also grew to become very much a part of Facebook.

As someone who has written a lot about content moderation, I was amused to see Instagram’s team offloading the responsibility for policing user behavior to Facebook basically upon walking in the door. Frier writes:

“Facebook had low-wage outside contractors quickly clicking through posts containing or related to nudity, violence, abuse, identity theft, and more to determine whether anything violated the rules and needed to be taken down. Instagram employees would no longer be as close to their worst content. Their nightmares would be officially outsourced.”

Years later, as bullying became a bigger problem among younger Instagram users, executives there asked Facebook for the headcount to build its own “integrity” team. Zuckerberg denied the request — Facebook had already built a large integrity team of its own and didn’t want to duplicate the efforts. The Instagram team was angered by the decision, but in some ways they had made it themselves long ago.

But that’s not to say that Facebook didn’t tamp down on Instagram’s independence over time. Many of the details were reported last year in a 12,000-word feature Wired, which I summarized in this column. Frier adds to our knowledge thanks to extensive interviews with Instagram’s co-founders, which help us understand what they were thinking as all this was going on. In one revealing passage, Frier recounts what happened when Facebook’s former chief product officer, Chris Cox, became their boss. It was just a few months before they would leave the company:

“Let’s be straight with each other,” Systrom told Cox, with Krieger in the room, once he was back from paternity leave. “I need independence. I need resources. And when something happens, I know I’m not always going to agree with it, but I need honesty. That’s what’s going to keep me here.”

A few months later, Systrom told Cox, “None of the things I asked for have happened.” And then he and Krieger quit.

Should Instagram’s pseudo-independence have lasted forever? Could it have lasted forever? It’s the big question that hangs over No Filter, and continues to be relevant to those who would like to see Instagram spun off back into an independent company. As someone who wishes Instagram had not sold to a larger company, I experienced the opening chapters as a kind of horror movie — the kind where you keep screaming at the plucky teenagers not to go into the house, knowing they are fated to go into the house, where they are certain to meet with an untimely end.

And yet I have trouble arguing that Facebook has not basically done right by Instagram. For years it let the company maintain its own idiosyncratic culture, with its emphasis on craftsmanship, resistance to spammy growth hacks, and supreme devotion to artisan coffee. And it heavily promoted the app through its powerful channels, helping to grow the company past 1 billion users.

Instagram did right by Facebook as well, showing the company that an app could succeed through careful deliberation and a focus on simplicity. By offering a distinctive alternative to the big blue app, Instagram was able to capture a younger demographic that Facebook would be lost today without.

Maybe Facebook and its subsidiary could have kept learning for one another for several more years. But the fallout of the 2016 election likely made that impossible. The year Systrom and Krieger quit was also the year of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the reckoning over Russian interference on the platform. It was the year Zuckerberg was first called to testify before Congress, and investigations into the company’s privacy and competition practices began to spin up around the world.

It was a year, in short, defined by crises, and the year Zuckerberg told top executives he had become a wartime CEO. In more peaceful times, it served Zuckerberg to have an idiosyncratic group of lieutenants running pseudo-independent kingdoms like Instagram and WhatsApp. But in wartime, loyalty to the cause became a more valuable trait than the acquired founders’ iconoclasm. And the No. 1 cause at Facebook has forever been the continued existence of Facebook.

If there’s a larger lesson here, it’s what we should understand the next time a big company acquires a small one and assures us it will remain “independent.” The first thing to know is that the independence described is likely overstated. And the second thing to know is that the independence likely comes with an expiration date. In business you can promise someone relative autonomy for three years, maybe, or five. But at some point over that time the world will change, and you’ll realize that no promise is truly forever.