I’ve come to realize that success is a pretty great disguise. When things turn out well it, can make up for a lot of crummy stuff that often happens behind the scenes.
Instagram is a great example of this in more ways than one. I think we can all agree at this point that the photos and videos people choose to share on social media create a pretty warped view of reality. Instagram’s corporate story was similarly varnished for years. What most people saw was an app that grew like a weed, crushed its competition, and created an entirely new class of digital celebrities. When co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left the company unexpectedly in late 2018, part of the shock was that—from the outside—things looked perfect.
In an excerpt this week from her upcoming book, No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, my colleague Sarah Frier strips away the gloss. Here, she’s gamely answered my questions about Systrom's tense relationship with Mark Zuckerberg, how the Instagram founders have responded to the pandemic, and doing a book tour in the time of coronavirus.
What's it like releasing a book in the middle of a global health crisis?
Some of it involves improvisation. For example, you can't send an early copy of the book to someone unless you know where they're sheltering in place. And we've had to get creative with virtual events. For one event next week, I'm signing sticky labels and sending them to the hosts, so attendees can still get a signed book. I've also purchased a bunch of lighting equipment so video appearances can be high quality without going to studios. The most interesting thing has been virtually meeting authors who are all in the same situation, who all want to support each other and rally around independent book stores, which need more help than we do right now.
After Facebook Inc. bought Instagram, how did the tension between Systrom and Zuckerberg change the product?
We're certainly seeing a lot more Facebook-y tactics, like push notifications, prompts to redirect users from Instagram to Facebook, and recommendations on who to follow. But I think the restrictions on resources for Instagram are the most important thing to keep in mind. Facebook will always prioritize fixing whatever affects the most users, or is critiqued the most by the public. In practice, this means Instagram, which is tremendously influential in our culture, with more than 1 billion users, will be a second or third priority.
What are the Instagram founders up to now?
Both founders have tried to take their time to figure out what to do next. Kevin Systrom likes having a strategy, but in 2018 he took different advice from his mentor Ray Dalio, the hedge fund billionaire. Dalio said he told Systrom to "go into ambiguity, allow the free time for exploration and to feel what comes naturally without a plan. He was both uncomfortable with it, and understood intellectually that it was the best thing to do." Lately we've seen them pop up publicly to talk about Covid-19—Krieger and his wife made a website to help restaurants sell gift cards, and Systrom has been explaining how to manage viral growth.
Do you have a favorite anecdote from the book?
Instagram's employees can make people into stars overnight. My favorite was hearing about this employee who keeps a spreadsheet of the best pet accounts on Instagram so he can share them in a feature called The Weekly Fluff. He had a soft spot for awkward-looking pets, like goats missing hind legs or cats with their tongues sticking out. In 2013, after being featured in a Weekly Fluff update, the owner of @tunameltsmyheart woke up one day to find her dog rapidly gaining fans. She eventually quit her job to manage the account full time and has 2.1 million followers.
What's the most interesting thing you learned from one of the celebrities you interviewed?
Kris Jenner, the matriarch of the Jenner-Kardashian clan that has built an empire through Instagram, told me that A-listers used to question her family's devotion to Instagram. They thought that if they removed the mystery of their personal lives by posting all the time, their fans would become less interested. She definitely proved them wrong.