Ten years ago today, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger released Instagram into the world. Less than a year and a half later, Facebook acquired it, in what is widely regarded as one of the shrewdest acquisitions in the history of the tech industry. It is now one of the most popular apps in the world and has thrived during the pandemic. But regulators and competitors continue to nip at its heels — TikTok has reportedly now surpassed it as the second-most popular app for teens, after Snapchat — and there’s no telling what it might look like another decade from now.
That’s one reason why the company is investing heavily in messaging features at the moment, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told me last week: they make the app sticky. The company also brought back some of its classic app icons as a birthday treat as well as a new map view for looking at archived stories.
But as Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier notes today, some big questions are swirling around the app as it hits double digits. She asks:
How many users does Instagram have? And how much revenue does it bring in for parent Facebook Inc.? When I asked, Instagram declined to comment.
Facebook isn’t the first tech giant to withhold basic information about a prized acquisition; Google began reporting YouTube revenue in February of this year — more than 13 years after buying the company.
But as Frier notes, with antitrust investigations underway — and the House Judiciary subcommittee’s report on that subject landing yesterday — hiding Instagram’s true size and value has real consequences. It’s hard to consider effective regulations for a platform when basic details about it are still unknown.
Frier is one of my favorite people to talk to about Instagram and the tech world generally. Her 2020 history of Instagram, No Filter, is the definitive account of the app’s rise. To mark its big day, I called her to talk about how Instagram has changed over the years, whether the app has become too cluttered, and whether she would rather live in an alternate universe in which Instagram had never sold.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
When you open Instagram today, which parts of the app feel basically the same as they did a decade ago?
The main feed is still very similar to how the founders imagined it. It’s still this place where we portray our lives as more curated and polished than they actually are — which is something that we learned to do because of Instagram’s filters in the early days.
But the app has gotten so much more complicated — and I think it’s becoming more and more Facebook-like.
Of all the changes made to Instagram since then, which do you think has had the biggest consequences?
The crucial change was the addition of Stories. We usually think about it in terms of its significance from a competitive standpoint — like Instagram versus Snapchat. I think it’s actually more significant from the standpoint of Instagram recognizing that the immense pressure that people have to perform on Instagram, and portray their lives a certain way, is actually bad for growth. The anxiety that goes into deciding whether something is Instagrammable actually made people post less.
Since they introduced Stories, they’ve taken away some of that pressure. That’s what really brought them down their path to a billion users and the ensuing conflicts with Facebook over whether they would cannibalize Facebook’s success.
With the addition of Reels, shopping, and other features, is Instagram at risk of getting too complicated?
The reason Instagram was so successful in the early days is it was so simple. And not just simple, but the founders really felt that it was important that they solve a problem for a user. And Instagram Stories was solving a problem for a user — that problem of pressure. But when you look at Reels, what problem does that solve for a user? It really solves a problem for Facebook’s business. And when you start solving problems for your business as opposed to for the people who use your product, it gets really confusing for people.
Which alternate universe would you prefer to live in, out of the following:
A. Kevin and Mikey never sell the company, take it public, and continue to challenge Facebook as an independent entity
B. Kevin and Mikey sell to Twitter, Instagram overtakes Twitter’s core product in popularity, and we get a social network duopoly with Facebook
C. Kevin and Mikey sell to Facebook, retain their relative autonomy to this very day, and become its co-CEOs once the Federal Trade Commission forces Facebook to spin it out
I mean, I think A would be the most interesting.
By being a smaller part of Facebook, Instagram does not get the attention to its problems that we’ve given to Facebook. As a separate entity, we would recognize more of the blind spots that Instagram has. And I do think that in the next 10 years, we will have a similar reckoning for Instagram. But right now, we simply don’t have as much visibility into how it works.
Finally, Kevin Systrom was reported to have been in talks for the TikTok CEO job. Wouldn’t it have been amazing if he announced on Tuesday that he had gotten the job?
That would be quite dramatic. But I don’t think Kevin’s going to do it because the thing he hated the most about how his time at Facebook ended was the politics: the jockeying for resources, the time spent getting approval for things with an overlord who might have different interests. I feel like TikTok would just be that all over again. You’re CEO without actually being CEO — and that’s a really frustrating place to be.
This column was co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter about big tech and democracy.