One day in the autumn of 2015, a small but significant change was implemented at the Instagram offices in Menlo Park, California. Employees arrived at work to discover the rubbish bins under each desk had disappeared. The bins had allowed people to work efficiently – no one had to stand up to throw away a coconut water carton or wasabi pea wrapper after they’d enjoyed the company’s free food. But the bins weren’t really Instagram’s – they were installed by Facebook, which had purchased the photo-sharing app for $1bn in 2012.
Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s co-founder, didn’t like the bins. He didn’t like the cardboard boxes employees used to file papers and paraphernalia. He hated old, sagging birthday balloons. Instagram’s offices, he explained, after removing the bins, should represent its ethos. They should be beautiful, simple, pristine – much like the app itself.
Tech reporter Sarah Frier, author of No Filter: The Inside Story of How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity and Our Culture, explains this story is significant for three reasons. First, it demonstrates Systrom’s aesthetic sensibilities. Second, it is indicative of his frustration with Facebook. (A year earlier he had torn down motivational posters belonging to the parent company, one of which said: “Done is Better than Perfect.”) And third, while the incident obviously affected Instagram employees – they dubbed it #trashcangate – it also represented an issue facing its users, who were, Frier says, “intimidated about posting because they thought Instagram warranted perfection”.
In the decade since the invention of Instagram, social media has dramatically changed our lives. This pursuit of perfection has led to a rise in filter-inspired plastic surgery and a boom in oversized desserts that don’t fit in your mouth, but fit perfectly into a little square posted online. How did this simple photo-sharing service get 1bn users in eight years? Does Instagram create or reflect our values? And, if the former, shouldn’t we know a little more about the mindset and motivations of the men behind the app?
Frier and I talk on the phone a week before her book is published. No Filter, she says, is an omniscient narration of Instagram’s birth and growth, cobbled together from insiders’ memories. Frier interviewed a different person each day for a year after getting the book deal in 2018. Many spoke without Facebook’s permission, and the majority of her sources remain anonymous. “I realised that there was so much uncharted territory,” she says. “My editor told me a book is ready to be written when you have 100 things in your pocket that nobody else has published.” Frier surpassed this benchmark.
One anecdote recalls Systrom saving actor Ashton Kutcher from a 4am fire in a log cabin. In return, Kutcher helped Instagram grow credibility with celebs. (He hosted a party to introduce Systrom to superstars like Ariana Grande, who the Instagram CEO didn’t recognise.) Then there’s the time the Instagram team celebrated the sale to Facebook with an all-expenses trip to the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, where they were greeted with personal congratulatory notes from Ivanka Trump.
But gossip isn’t at the heart of Frier’s book and it’s the mundane stories about Systrom that are most revealing. A Stanford alumnus who, at 25, worked in marketing at Google, he founded his company with software engineer and friend Mike Krieger in 2009. His original idea was a website called Burbn, which showed people where their friends were partying in real time. The name was inspired by Systrom’s love of the whiskey. Throughout the book, Frier reveals his passion for prestige. Systrom enjoys fine drinks and bespoke bicycles – he snubbed Facebook’s free coffee by importing beans that he only used at their “peak point” (four days after roasting).
“I think that products are ultimately a reflection of their leaders,” Frier says. “He wants everything to be at a level of quality because he believes in that quality.” Systrom turned Burbn into Instagram when he realised there was a gap in the market for an app that helped people quickly share pictures from phones. But there was another problem he hoped to solve: back then, phone cameras were shoddy and took unattractive pictures. When Instagram launched, it offered filters that people could use to make their photos – and by extension, their lives – look more appealing.
From the outset, his demand for quality shifted our reality. “A filter on Instagram was like if Twitter had a button to make you more clever,” Frier says. Instagram was heavily curated in its early days. Because there are no mechanisms to go viral on the app (users can’t share posts), Instagram employees manually chose photos to push on its “Popular” page. “Instagram had a hand in it in a way none of us on the outside would ever necessarily realise,” Frier says.
For example, in 2013, one Instagram employee dedicated his time to “discovering pets”. He tracked adorable dogs, birds and lizards in a spreadsheet before highlighting them on the official @instagram page. Frier chronicles how these decisions changed real lives. Courtney Dasher, for example, was a dog owner with a cute-looking pet named Tuna. She quit her job and earned money via Instagram thanks to the decision of that employee. Dasher tells Frier that pictures of her dog helped fans cope with anxiety and depression. “The tastes of one Instagram employee directly affected the habits of the 2m people who now follow that dog,” Frier says.
How else have we been influenced by Instagram? Frier’s examples range from how we organise bookshelves by cover colour to how once rarely visited tourist destinations are now trampled underfoot. “By constantly serving users images of visually appealing lives and hobbies,” she says, Instagram forced people to “make their lives more worthy of posting about.” She notes how leisure time became a status symbol – how Instagram gradually affected the economy, as people began to value experiences over things. More of us now “pursue vacations in more picturesque settings,” Frier says, in part because pictures taken in those locations look great on the ’gram. (She links the app with nine major retailers filing for bankruptcy in the US in 2017).
And it’s not just our lives that have to look interesting on Instagram – our faces do, too. Photo-editing apps, like Facetune, have boomed in popularity. Teens slim their noses, enhance their waists and hide their spots with the help of digital editing tools. One plastic surgeon told Frier that his clients now seek impossible-to-achieve adjustments inspired by the app. Kim Kardashian, owner of the seventh most popular Instagram account (and a famously large behind) can arguably be linked to the 20,000 people in the US who had a Brazilian bum lift in 2017.
This isn’t something Systrom actually wanted. Frier says that selfies and bikini shots were against the CEO’s “artistic sensibilities”. These posts became popular despite the fact they were ignored by the official @instagram account. Yet Frier says that Instagram incentivised selfies and surgery through its metrics, if not its values. The choice to display numbers of followers and likes turned the app “into a game one could win”. In 2017 a study by the Royal Society for Public Health found that Instagram was the worst app for teens’ mental health. Was this an inevitable outcome?
Frier starts her final chapter with a quote from an anonymous Instagram executive: “Everything breaks at a billion.” Instagram reached 1bn active monthly users for the first time in June 2018. “I think at a certain point you lose control of something when it gets that big,” she says, noting that 6m accounts on Instagram now have over 1m followers. “They wanted to build a better community, but they just didn’t have the resources to do that, which is such a silly thing to say about a product that is part of a gigantic, well-sourced company, like Facebook.”
Mark Zuckerberg bought Instagram in April 2012, when the app had just 13 employees and hadn’t made a single penny in profit. Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for Frier’s book, sending over a single emailed quote via a PR person. “It’s simple,” he wrote, when asked why he both purchased Instagram and committed to keeping the company independent, “it was a great service and we wanted to help it grow.” Despite the fact he refused to take part in Frier’s reporting, No Filter is as much about Zuckerberg and Facebook as it is about Systrom and Instagram. (The word “Facebook” appears 1,179 times in the book, while “Instagram” appears 1,673.)
“A lot of times we think when a company has been acquired that their business story is over,” Frier says. She argues this isn’t the case here. The book chronicles the power struggles between Systrom and Zuckerberg. Frier believes Zuckerberg acquired Instagram due to his paranoia about competition. Consequently, Zuckerberg occasionally held Instagram back – after it reached 1bn users, the Facebook founder deleted a feature that automatically linked Facebook users to their friends’ Instagram pages. He also prevented the company from hiring more staff and prioritised Facebook’s content moderation over Instagram’s. Ineffective moderation allowed troubling practices – such as the sale of opioids and the proliferation of self-harm – to flourish on Instagram.
For every banal coffee bean anecdote about Systrom, there is a story that makes Zuckerberg look equally weird. In 2012, on the night the Instagram deal was finalised, the Facebook founder’s sheepdog, Beast, bit the leg of Facebook deals director Amin Zoufonoun. He later joked that Zuckerberg showed more concern for the dog than the man. On a separate occasion, Zuckerberg lost a game of Scrabble to a teenager on a corporate jet and “was so frustrated he built a computer program to find him all the word options for his letters”. He ended every staff meeting by shouting: “Domination!”
Both men have had a profound impact on our lives and yet when we criticise Instagram, we often criticise women. Articles condemning beautiful influencers for earning millions on Instagram are viral fodder. “Those stories take the airwaves and we don’t think, ‘How did we end up valuing this?’” Frier says. Though influencers are often denounced for not disclosing when they’ve been paid to promote a product, Frier traces this issue back to Systrom. The founder was so dedicated to keeping Instagram aesthetically pleasing that he didn’t want ads on the app to look like ads. (Once he even edited a brand’s picture of French fries so they looked less soggy.)
While we’re busy criticising influencers, Instagram has also avoided scrutiny in other ways. Zuckerberg was called before Congress in 2018 to answer questions about how Facebook allowed user data to be processed by the political firm Cambridge Analytica. Much was made of Facebook’s role in helping Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election after Russian troll farms targeted divisive ads at Americans. And yet, six months after Zuckerberg’s hearing, a Senate research group discovered that Russian ads had actually received more likes and comments on Instagram than Facebook. “The media spent a day writing about it, and then moved on,” Frier says.
It’s easy (and perhaps enjoyable) to think that bikini shots and Brazilian bum lifts are Instagram’s biggest impact on society – the reality is more complex. Because Zuckerberg allowed Instagram to maintain its independence, the app isn’t tainted by Facebook’s scandals. Yet ultimately, Zuckerberg still owns it – Systrom stepped down as CEO in 2018, partly because of contrasting values, partly because he wanted to return to his “creative roots”. Now, one man controls Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, a global network of 2.5bn users.
What next for Instagram? Frier says the site will continue to face moderation issues as Facebook is prioritised. She also believes advertising on Instagram will increase as Zuckerberg seeks a return on his investment. Frier also notes that the current coronavirus crisis may change the app. While some influencers are seeing their businesses crumble, others are becoming more creative by releasing books, video tutorials, workout classes and even their own filters. These changes might stick once lockdown is over.
But is this really revolutionary? “People still know the way to win at Instagram is to do something visually arresting,” Frier says. “I don’t think that’s going to go away.” From the moment Instagram introduced us to reality-adjusting filters, it changed the way we presented ourselves to the world. A striking observation in No Filter is that Instagram wanted to build a community that valued art and creativity. Instead, “they built a mall”. While much is made of beautiful influencers flogging diet pills and luxury travel on the app, everyone on Instagram is selling their life in some way.
No Filter by Sarah Frier is published by Cornerstone at £20. Order a copy for £17.20 at guardianbookshop.com