How Mark Zuckerberg pillaged Instagram, and forced its co-founder to quit

Instagram has a larger following than ever, thanks to a global pandemic that’s kept billions trapped in their homes.

According to influencer marketing agency Obviously, there’s been a 76 percent increase in daily accumulated likes on Instagram since March. With few other options, people are turning to social media to escape the grim reality of the outside world.

“We’re reassuring ourselves with our rosy Instagram posts,” says Sarah Frier, author of the new book “No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram” (Simon & Schuster), out now. “We’ll post the homemade sourdough bread or the screenshot of the Zoom happy hour, as opposed to the fatigue of entertaining children at home during the work day. I do it, too.”

When Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012 in a deal worth about $730 million in cash and stock, it was a 2-year-old start-up with just 13 employees — and a lot of industry experts were left scratching their heads.

Instagram’s business model was all about aesthetics, standing in stark contrast to everything Facebook represented. Founded in 2010 by Stanford grads Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram was “less about the technology and more about the psychology — about how it made people feel,” Frier writes. The co-founders wanted to change the world “or at least how people saw the world, the way linear perspective changed painting and architecture in the Renaissance.”

Facebook’s strategy, meanwhile, was “more attuned to metrics than to cultural moments.” It used data mined from users to figure out exactly what people already wanted “and then [gave] more of it to them.”

The way Instagram and Facebook did business also reflected the companies’ founders.

Though Systrom is competitive, he always strived for the perfect form, Frier writes. As a kid, his father once bought him a baseball glove and ball — but before agreeing to play catch, Systrom visited the local library and studied books on pitching techniques.

Zuckerberg, on the other hand, “was set on doing things better than anyone else,” Frier says, so that he could win. He loved playing board games at the office, especially Risk, and his strategy was “win-at-all-costs.” Once, when he lost in a game of Scrabble to a friend’s teenage daughter, “he created a simple software program to cheat.”

The Facebook News Feed (right) is a chaotic mishmash of elements, while Instagram posts tend to aim for visual appeal.
The Facebook News Feed (right) is a chaotic mishmash of elements, while Instagram posts tend to aim for visual appeal.Instagram @chefelliciarose; Shutterstock

Though Systrom had been programming most of his life — working for Google and Odeo, the podcasting company that would develop Twitter — he was most passionate about art. While at college, he traveled to Florence, Italy, for three months to study photography.

“In the tech industry, leaders rarely had any experience in the industry they were disrupting,” Frier writes. “Amazon’s Jeff Bezos had never been in books and Tesla’s Elon Musk had never been in car manufacturing, but Instagram’s filters had clearly been made by a photographer.”

Systrom wasn’t concerned about building the biggest social-media platform in the world, he wanted to create a place on the Internet “where the most interesting people who were the best at what they did could be followed by others, praised, and emulated,” Frier writes. Instagram was an instant hit with the artists, designers and photographers Systrom originally sought to impress. More than 25,000 people signed up on the first day Instagram went public, and 100,000 within the first week.

Zuckerberg, meanwhile, didn’t necessarily want “the best users” — he wanted the most. “Zuckerberg had created the largest network of humans ever,” Frier writes. “He chose to grow that community by tweaking the product constantly to pursue a greater and greater share of the time people spent on the Internet.”

But Instagram had something Facebook couldn’t create with an algorithm: respectability.

Though Facebook has twice as many users, it’s arguable that Instagram has a bigger influence in shaping how we view (or want to view) the world. As Frier points out, “Instagrammable” is now part of the global vernacular, referring to a moment that is beautiful enough to be posted on the site. But nobody strives for a life that’s more “Facebookable.”

‘Facebook was like the big sister that wants to dress you up for the party but does not want you to be prettier.’

 – An Instagram executive quoted in “No Filter”

After Facebook acquired Instagram, the assumption was they’d “absorb the technology, rebrand the product, and fill some gap in what their own company was capable of.” But instead Zuckerberg told Facebook staff “to leave Instagram alone.”

During the first few years, they did exactly that, even though Instagram’s approach to building an audience baffled most Facebook employees.

Facebook used an algorithm to scrutinize every choice their users made online, even the choices they don’t follow through on. Every like or share or click is recorded, as are the posts typed but not sent and the names searched but not friend-
requested.

Meanwhile, rather than watch their users and try to determine their interests, Instagram curated content “based solely on the personal tastes of their 13-member staff.”

They loved picking favorites, instantly putting certain users in the limelight and giving them a larger audience. They could also ban users arbitrarily, without reason or warning. It was a process they called “pruning the trolls,” Frier writes, as if “Instagram were a beautiful plant with some yellowing leaves.”

Zuckerberg was tolerant — to a point. His long-term plan was for Instagram to start selling ads. But as with Facebook, it could only happen after a network had become “so valuable to its users that advertisements . . . aren’t going to turn them off,” Frier writes.

Instagram wasn’t opposed to advertising, as long as it was done artfully and wasn’t too obvious. At a tech conference in 2012, Systrom claimed that the companies and brands with the most success on Instagram were “the ones where it comes across as honest and genuine.”

Instagram started running ads in late 2013, but they limited it to one brand per day. And Systrom had strict control of presentation. By 2014, Zuckerberg decided “it was time for the app to earn back some of its acquisition price.” They would start increasing the number of ads with Facebook’s advertising infrastructure. “All Instagram had to do was plug in and boom, they’d have a multibillion-dollar business,” writes Frier.

Since March, Instagram has been flooded with posts, showing people cooking beautifully in quarantine

Systrom pushed back, worried that too many ads would “clash drastically with Instagram’s aesthetic” and lead to “death by pixelated digital billboards.” But Zuckerberg forced Instagram to “open the floodgates and let in ads from any random business buying on the Facebook website,” Frier writes.

It was the first of many disagreements between the two founders. Systrom balked at the idea of overwhelming users with notification e-mails, informing them of every tagged photo or comment (good or bad). “They didn’t want to be annoying or trade the trust they had gained with their community for a temporary boost,” says Frier.

But as Systrom was learning, Facebook wanted big numbers, “milestones like one billion users, so it could swallow from an even bigger fire hose of data on human interactions.”

Instagram reached the one-billion-user milestone in 2018, and Zuckerberg was happy to take all the credit, telling analysts during an earnings call that Instagram used “Facebook’s infrastructure to grow more than twice as quickly as it would have on its own.”

Behind the scenes, however, Facebook was treating Instagram more like the competition. Not long after the earnings call, Zuckerberg decided it was time to “take the training wheels off” and ordered all of the supporting tools that funneled growth to Instagram — including promotions within the Facebook News Feed — to be turned off.

As one former Instagram executive complained: “Facebook was like the big sister that wants to dress you up for the party but does not want you to be prettier than she is.”

Two months after Zuckerberg declared victory for transforming Instagram, Systrom and Krieger resigned.

In their absence, Instagram has increasingly grown “more in line with what Facebook wants it to become, as opposed to the founders’ wishes,” says Frier. Which means more algorithms to track and study users, and make sure they’re coming back for more. They’ve even rebranded the name as “Instagram from Facebook.”

But in this social-distancing climate, Instagram users have been increasingly drawn to the site for the reasons Systrom and Krieger originally envisioned. Rather than self-promotion, the most viral Instagram posts right now are amateur cooking demonstrations and people sharing the mundane details of their stuck-at-home lives.

Systrom once said he envisioned the app as “an escape from the rest of the Internet, a place where things were more beautiful and people were optimistic about their lives.”

This has never been more apparent than over the last month. “People are sharing things that make them laugh, things that make them feel grateful, things that keep them and their families busy,” says Erin Vogel, a social psychology researcher at Stanford University. “While Facebook and Twitter have largely become outlets for sharing news, Instagram seems to be a respite from it.”