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

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 Instagram, which 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:

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