Some time on Monday, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger appear to have snapped.
Tensions between the Instagram founders and their parent company had been simmering for months. But tensions are the default state at any company that has been acquired, and Systrom and Krieger had navigated those waters ably for six years.
High-level corporate executive departures generally — and Facebook departures in particular — are stage-managed to minimize drama. A replacement leader is identified and named internally. A public-relations plan is developed and put into action. An anodyne blog post announces the news. At Facebook, the executive’s departure is accompanied by well wishes, posted as status updates from Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and others.
The Instagram founders’ exit, by contrast, was as close as Facebook has ever come to the flight attendant who chugged a beer and pulled the emergency chute on his final day of work. The most striking thing in the immediate aftermath was the chaos: spokespeople at Facebook and Instagram didn’t know what was going on, beyond the brief initial story published in the New York Times by Mike Isaac.
Eventually, the choreography of the exit began to resemble something more Facebook-like. The founders posted a farewell note to the Instagram blog. (In a next-level stunt, Systrom used the corporate blog to very nearly confirm that he would form a new company with Krieger.) Zuckerberg offered a few words — though he posted nothing to his profile. Systrom and Krieger later tweeted their farewells, and posted valedictory ‘grams. None of that could cover up for the fact that it all had been a rush job.
(A rush job, incidentally, that created other rush jobs: The WSJ. Magazine and Fast Company both had recent interviews with the founders in the can, and hustled them up before their words could go entirely stale.)
As someone who knows the founders told me, Systrom and Krieger are very low-drama executives. So why leave in such dramatic fashion? What invisible line were they asked to cross? I suspect we’ll find out eventually. (And if you know — or just have a theory — I’m all ears.)
So what do we know for sure? And what does it tell us about the future?
Most of the reporting done today traces that familiar narrative from post-acquisition life: simmering tensions that suddenly boiled over. As Kurt Wagner and Kara Swisher reported at Recode, a recent decision to remove Instagram branding from photos that are reshared to Facebook was among the slights that worsened the founders’ relationship with their parent company.
Deepa Seetharaman’s account of how these tensions grew is the most definitive one I read today. Multiple reports today name the most proximate cause of the founders’ exit as Zuckerberg’s decision this spring to reorganize all product divisions under Cox, to whom Systrom would now report. This added a complicating layer between Systrom and Zuckerberg at a time when Instagram has become more important to Facebook’s future than ever before.
Mr. Systrom had previously technically reported to Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, but that reporting structure wasn’t widely known. Some within Instagram believed the new structure would give Mr. Systrom much less access to Mr. Zuckerberg, with whom he previously interacted frequently. “It was always Kevin and Mark,” said a person familiar with the situation.
At the same time, a death-by-a-thousand-cuts dynamic was playing out between Instagram and its parent company. For years, Facebook had left Instagram more or less alone. Facebook was in hyper-growth mode, printing money thanks to its lucrative News Feed advertisements, and Zuckerberg was content to let his $1 billion acquisition grow at its own pace.
Then Facebook hit its saturation point in North America, the sharing of original posts declined, and a series of crises related to the 2016 US presidential election battered its image. Only Instagram survived with its reputation mostly intact. As the crown jewel in Facebook’s product lineup, it became the subject of regular meddling from the parent organization. (My colleague Chris Welch rounds up some of the most prominent examples here.)
Some of the battles can appear petty from the outside. The decision to strip Instagram attribution from posts that are re-shared to Facebook, which took place earlier this year, was a very big deal to Systrom, I’m told. At the same time, he was fighting off all manner of Zuckerberg incursions — badged notifications inside Instagram begging people to open Facebook being maybe the most prominent example. None of them meaningfully improved Instagram; they were simply the cost of being acquired.
Every ask leads to another one, and it seems clear Systrom and Krieger were spending an increasing amount of time asking themselves what they could live with. As Ben Thompson says, the founders’ fate was sealed the day they sold to Facebook. But still: it didn’t have to end like this.
And what does it mean? For starters, this is the end of Instagram as we know it. Systrom and Krieger were deeply involved in day-to-day product decisions, and retained an unusual degree of autonomy over the company. For years, they were careful to the point of being obstinate. Even as they began to expand Instagram’s suite of offerings, they remained deeply cautious. (Features for creating groups of “favorites” and a standalone messaging app have been in testing for 15 months and 10 months, respectively.)
Many talented employees remain at Instagram, of course. It’s a coveted job at Facebook, not least because of its ritzy new office in downtown San Francisco. Robby Stein and Vishal Shah, both directors of product management, and Ian Spalter, who leads design efforts, are frequently mentioned as rising stars in the organization. Adam Mosseri, who formerly ran the News Feed, is similarly well liked. But increasingly, their task will be to build a front end for Facebook’s advertising network. The autonomy Instagram once enjoyed is gone.
The founders’ hasty departure leaves many projects in flux. IGTV, a pet project of Systrom’s that was nearly killed for fear that it competed too closely with Facebook Watch, could be strangled in its crib. (It has been slow to take off.) As I first reported earlier this month, Instagram is building a standalone shopping app as well. The fate of Instagram Direct will have to be decided as well.
Systrom — a new father — and Krieger will take some time off from tech, though one suspects not too much. Systrom has interviews scheduled with The Information and Wired in coming weeks, and perhaps we’ll learn more about his departure then. (It seems likelier he’ll demure. But maybe not!)
Nothing can change the fact that this was an extraordinary exit, and one that has left Facebook employees reeling. Some unknown thing changed for the founders this week, and it pushed them out the door months or even years before they were ready. Prior to this week, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger were nowhere done building Instagram. And whatever they build next will have Mark Zuckerberg’s full attention.
Brian Fung and Tony Romm recap the meeting between Jeff Sessions and a group of attorneys general on the subject of heightened scrutiny for tech companies. It sounds like some kind of action is forthcoming:
Most in the meeting agreed that the Justice Department would probably play a role in any legal action against the tech industry. Still, much of the group’s momentum now appears to be driven by an emerging multistate inquiry — not the Justice Department — with Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson expected to coordinate the attorneys general’s conversation.
“[The] AGs are really focused on understanding more as to what consumers are truly consenting to and what they may not know is going on with their data,” Racine said in an interview.
Sundar Pichai has agreed to go to Washington, but just for a private meeting with Republican lawmakers.
Facebook found some fake accounts posting viral political content and shut down the related pages, Craig Silverman reports. They caught some big fish here, including the home of a reporter who got more engagement than any other on all of Facebook:
Facebook has removed over a dozen American hyperpartisan liberal and conservative pages with more than 30 million combined fans after discovering they were administered by the same fake account and were in violation of policies against spamming, a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
All of the removed pages had recently, and almost exclusively, been promoting links to LifeZette.com, the conservative website founded by Fox News host Laura Ingraham. It was sold last year to Canadian billionaire Daryl Katz, though Ingraham maintains a minority stake in the company, according to CNN. LifeZette’s content continues to be heavily promoted on Ingraham’s social media accounts. (Her Facebook page and the main LifeZette page were not removed by Facebook. The company did not respond to requests for comment.)
Former Facebook employee Dipayan Ghosh has a new report out arguing that Silicon Valley should be subject to tougher regulation, particularly around acquiring users, Deepa Seetharaman reports:
Over the course of the year, the tech companies have announced changes to their privacy practices and have tried to take steps to shore up user trust. But those changes don’t go far enough to address the deeper problems of the platforms, which are still reliant on maintaining user attention, according to Messrs. Ghosh and Scott, who wrote a separate report in January critical of the big tech companies.
“I think we both felt at the beginning of the year, there was potential to talk to the industry,” said Mr. Ghosh, who previously served as a White House technology adviser under President Barack Obama. “We are increasingly disillusioned now.”
Et tu, Safari? The browser promoted Pizzagate videos, Holocaust denier articles, and debunked race science posts, Charlie Warzel finds.
Natasha Singer previews Wednesday’s hearing about data privacy and suggests Congress would do better to examine tech companies’ business practices:
In a surveillance economy where companies track, analyze and capitalize on our clicks, the issue at hand isn’t privacy. The problem is unfettered data exploitation and its potential deleterious consequences — among them, unequal consumer treatment, financial fraud, identity theft, manipulative marketing and discrimination.
In other words, asking companies whose business models revolve around exploiting data-based consumer-influence techniques to explain their privacy policies seems about as useful as asking sharks to hold forth on veganism.
Keith Enright is Google’s new chief privacy officer, arriving just as the company faces potential federal regulation for its handling of data.
Brazilians are embracing far-right Twitter clone Gab, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
The migration to Gab started with Twitter hashtags. Hashtags promoting Gab appeared a few days after Twitter suspended both Brazilian accounts and that of right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The most popular hashtag, #MeSegueNoGab (Follow Me on Gab), was tweeted 25,000 times between August 20 and 23 and trended in Brazil.
The hashtag was championed by Twitter profiles historically linked to Jair Bolsonaro. Among the main influencers sharing the hashtag were the Movimento Brasil Conservador (Conservative Brazil Movement), and hyper-partisan websites Conexão Política and Portal Terça Livre. There was no evidence of automated amplification.
Twitter’s new policy will ban posts that “dehumanize anyone based on membership in an identifiable group,” even if it’s not in a tweet that is targeting someone for abuse. In a novel twist, Twitter is soliciting feedback about the policy and how it will be implemented.
Louise Matsakis talks to Del Harvey about the new rules:
Generally speaking, my view is that if there is a behavior that is likely to result in real-world harm we really should be looking at what are the guardrails around something like that. How can we do a good job of making sure that we are taking our role seriously in terms of trying to protect people?
Part of the reason I think we’re talking about this now is we’ve made a lot of changes over the last couple of years to really improve our enforcement options past just suspension. Some time ago, you were suspended or you were not suspended. That was pretty much all we had. We’ve tried to add a lot of new enforcement options. Now that we have some of those additional options, and now that we’re working on developing more, it gives us the opportunity to really dig into some areas that were maybe grey areas in the past that we didn’t have policy coverage for.
Josh Constine’s post about #Krexit includes these nuggets: Instagram’s director of public policy, Nicole Jackson Colaco, and Instagram’s AR/Camera product lead, Keith Peiris, both left earlier this year.
Adweek interviewed Facebook’s global head of marketing about trust:
EVERSON: The way we think about it is it’s a series of actions that you do every single day, just like if it was a personal relationship. That’s how we talk about it internally. When you’re sitting with [Facebook chief product officer] Chris [Cox] and [Facebook CEO] Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s like, how do you build trust with a friend, a partner, a spouse? You build it every day by actually doing what you say, being very transparent, being humble, having full acceptance of responsibility.
If I added up all the product things that we have done, everything from changing privacy settings to doing more education to consumers to giving them full control over how their data is being used to saying that if you want to take all your photos out of Facebook and move them out, you can do that. Each one of those things, we’re hoping, adds up to ensuring that we either regain it or continue to have it with those that we didn’t lose. It’s a total focus of the company.
Not even the end of Instagram as we know it could stop the organization from shipping, uh, web notifications.
Shira Ovide says the Instagram founders’ departure is going to sting:
Losing the founders doesn’t mean that all the psychic, strategic and financial benefits of owning Instagram are wiped away. Facebook will put its trusted people in charge of the asset. Life at Instagram will move on after a while, as presumably it has at WhatsApp. But we and Facebook will never really know what might have been lost for the company and for the health of the internet.
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And finally ...
How did Kevin Systrom spend his day? Here’s a clue from the WSJ magazine interview, conducted before he made his Kool-Aid Man exit through a wall in Menlo Park.
He told me he’s taken personality tests that suggest he’s an introvert and that he finds great joy in disappearing on long, solo bike rides. “I gain my power, my energy, by being alone in reflection,” he says. “That’s why I love cycling. Because I can be out in the middle of nowhere on my bike and let it all go.”
Come back to us Kevin!!
Talk to me
Send the real reason Mike and Kevin left Instagram and literally nothing else!!! firstname.lastname@example.org.
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An evening newsletter about Facebook, social networks, and democracy.