Last year, in an effort to give shape to The Interface’s coverage area, I posted a public list of questions that I hoped to investigate over time. I saved my favorite one for last: why did Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger really leave Instagram?
In the months since the co-founders abruptly quit, we’ve gotten more details about the split. We learned that increasing tension with Facebook, combined with an unusually long post-acquisition tenure at their acquirer, had made them antsy. But we still never knew what specifically led them to resign, or why it was announced in such a hurry.
Today, with the publication of Nick Thompson and Fred Vogelstein’s 12,000-word account of Facebook’s past year and a half, I am happy to say that the mystery is now solved. Drawing on interviews with 65 current and former employees, the Wired authors paint a detailed picture of the steps leading to Systrom and Krieger’s departure.
According to their reporting, the timeline goes like this:
- Instagram’s rapid rise bred resentment at Facebook, where some top executives came to feel that the acquisition was siphoning growth and engagement away from the core Facebook app.
- As Mark Zuckerberg prepared to reorganize his executive team for the first time ever, the Instagram founders pushed for then-News Feed chief Adam Mosseri to be their official delegate from the mothership. They liked him and thought he could be an effective buffer against intrusive Facebook demands.
- After Systrom participated in magazine profiles, Zuckerberg declared that no one else could do so without permission from him or Sheryl Sandberg.
- In an earnings call in July 2018, Zuckerberg took credit for Instagram’s success, saying “We believe Instagram has been able to use Facebook’s infrastructure to grow more than twice as quickly as it would have on its own.”
- Zuckerberg then charged his then-head of growth, Javier Olivan, to make a list of all the ways Facebook boosted Instagram’s growth. Some of those supports included a tag on Instagram photos shared to Facebook noting where they had originally been posted, and allowing Instagram to use a person’s Facebook friends to suggest Instagram follows for them.
- Zuckerberg then told Systrom he was taking away all those supports, apparently to protect the health of the Facebook app.
- Systrom sent a memo to Instagram employees informing them that Zuckerberg was taking away the growth tools, saying he opposed them but the company had no choice but go along. Facebook was terrified the memo would leak.
- Systrom then immediately peaced out for a few months of paternity leave.
- With Systrom on leave, Facebook began testing location tracking and a disgusting hamburger button inside Instagram, offending Systrom’s delicate sensibilities.
- Systrom began to suspect that Zuckerberg was intent on making him miserable enough that he would quit. (See: hamburger button.)
- Systrom and Krieger decided to quit soon after the former came back from paternity leave. After they informed their team that they intended to leave, the news leaked to the New York Times, blindsiding the communications team and forcing Facebook to rush up a hurried goodbye. (The rush job was one of the main lingering mysteries about the departure.)
I find all of this ... highly plausible? It’s also somewhat tragic: as the Wired story notes, Instagram’s design has made it harder for bad actors to misuse it, and it retains an appeal for North American users that the core Facebook app has long since squandered. You can debate how much Facebook contributed to Instagram’s success — and surely it contributed a lot — but Systrom and Krieger had unshakeable beliefs about app design that served them very well, and now that they’re gone all that is left is for Instagram to become a reskinned version of the Facebook app.
As for the rest of the Wired piece, it could serve as a nice introduction to Facebook’s past year and a half for anyone who hasn’t been following along with The Interface. The authors gamely try to weave a thread through Cambridge Analytica, the challenges of content moderation, executive departures, the future of the news industry, Joel Kaplan’s malign influence, fights among the communications team, Zuckerberg’s comments about the Holocaust, last fall’s data breach, the Definers scandal, the Facebook Research app scandal, and the creeping threat of regulation.
My main takeaway is that an app that has 2.7 billion users is going to have a lot of things happening inside it, and to it, and that it might make a good subject for a daily newsletter.
In any case, I am glad that a core mystery about Facebook’s past year and a half can now officially be said to be closed. Facebook surely runs smoother now that recalcitrant product leaders like Systrom and Krieger (and WhatsApp’s Jan Koum and Brian Acton) have left the company. Whether it runs better, though, is still an open question.
Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar report on a leak of more documents produced in discovery for the Pikini lawsuit that we’ve written about a few times around here. Main takeaway: Facebook considered selling user data more seriously than was previously known. (Facebook is also taking legal action against developer Six4Three, which it believes leaked the documents to reporters. It could result in jail time for the leakers.)
Still, these freshly leaked documents show that the plans to sell access to user data were discussed for years and received support from Facebook’s most senior executives, including Zuckerberg, chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, chief product officer Chris Cox and VP of growth Javier Olivan.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (On the other side of the aisle, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just deactivated her personal account.) Sara Fischer reports:
The Trump campaign is spending nearly half (44%) of its Facebook ad budget to target users who are over 65 years old, as opposed to Democratic candidates who are only spending 27% of their budget on that demographic, according to data given to Axios exclusively from Bully Pulpit Interactive.
The Russian internet is rapidly becoming a mirror of China’s, Colin Lecher reports:
Under the proposal, Russian internet traffic would be required to be sent through servers in the country, according to the AP, giving the country more leverage to surveil and censor information. The bill was approved by the State Duma, and it will now head to the upper legislative chamber before going to President Putin’s desk for a signature.
I’m legitimately surprised that this happened to TikTok before larger platforms like YouTube. Does the Indian government want to strangle India in its crib? I’d also note that the ban stems from some rather vague concerns — you’d think the government would tie the ban to a high-profile incident rather than generic worrying.
Google has blocked access to the hugely popular video app TikTok in India to comply with a state court’s directive to prohibit its downloads, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Tuesday.
The move comes hours after a court in southern Tamil Nadu state refused a request by China’s Bytedance Technology to suspend a ban on its TikTok app, putting its future in one of its key markets in doubt.
Alex Kantrowitz reports on an unintended consequence of Twitter’s policy around removing tweets containing death threats:
Twitter would’ve typically taken down the threatening tweets once they were reported, but the company left them up to enable potential law enforcement collaboration, a source close to the company told BuzzFeed News. The Capitol Hill police are working on the issue, the source said.
The incident highlights Twitter’s flawed approach to dealing with death threats on its platform. Instead of reporting death threats to law enforcement as a policy, Twitter simply deletes them. This means its users can make these threats with little fear of retribution, since the tweets usually disappear before police can review them. “This creates incentives for users of the platform,” a Democratic congressional aide told BuzzFeed News. “There’s a reason people on this platform feel comfortable making open death threats to Ilhan Omar.”
Jack Dorsey sat for an uncomfortable interview at TED on Tuesday. Among other things, he discussed a blog post the company put out today noting some progress in fighting abuse on the platform.
Emily Dreyfuss notes a dramatic moment at Dorsey’s TED interview:
In his signature black hoodie and jeans, unkempt facial hair and black beanie, he sat with head of TED Chris Anderson and Whitney Pennington Rodgers, who curates current affairs for the conference, for a conversation that left all three members, and the audience, frustrated.
“We’re on this great voyage with you on the Twittanic,” Anderson told Dorsey after roughly 20 minutes of interrupted back and forth. “There are people in steerage who are saying, ‘We are worried about the iceberg ahead!’ And you say, ‘That is a good point’ and ‘our boat hasn’t been built to handle it,’ and we’re waiting, and you are showing this extraordinary calm and we’re all worried but we’re outside saying, ‘Jack, turn the fucking wheel!’”
Journalist Carole Cadwalladr appeared at TED this week to discuss social networks with her customary restraint. Ina Fried reports:
She specifically singled out Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Square and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey as “accessories” to “subversion.”
She called on Facebook to reveal more of what happened in Brexit and the 2016 U.S. elections. “It’s a crime scene and you have the evidence,” she said. “It’s not enough to say you will do better in the future.”
Discord’s hate-speech problem doesn’t seem to be getting any better, Mark Di Stefano and Alex Wickham report:
Outside the election channel, but within the “Athens” server that Benjamin directed his supporters to, are other channels of discussion containing violent material.
In one discussion in a channel called #the-temple-of-veethena-nike from March 2019 about the new copyright law approved by the European Parliament, members talked about killing pro-EU politicians.
Get ‘em while they’re hot:
No, you’re not misremembering the details from that young adult dystopian fiction you’re reading — Facebook really does sell a video chat camera adept at tracking the faces of you and your loved ones. Now, you too can own Facebook’s poorly timed foray into social hardware for the low, low price of $99. That’s a pretty big price drop considering that the Portal, introduced less than six months ago, debuted at $199.
Sad news for those who enjoyed sending P2P payments in Messenger in the UK and France!
YouTube may want to think through whether it wants banned users to appear in videos created by the platform’s stars. Julia Alexander reports on Alex Jones’ cozying up to Logan Paul:
This marked the second time in a month that Jones was allowed to appear on a popular YouTube personality’s channel, following a four-hour appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast in February. During his latest appearance, Jones discussed dangerous conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate and misinformation about autism. These are examples of conspiracy theories that YouTube has spent time trying to combat.
I wanted to write a lead column about HQ’s sad decline, and perhaps I’ll still get around to it. But in the meantime read Josh Constine’s absolutely wild account of the startup’s past five months, which have been more dramatic than any social-media since peak boardroom-drama Twitter.
By February 2019, HQ’s staff was fed up. Two sources confirm that 20 of the roughly 35 employees signed a letter asking the board to remove Yusupov and establish a new CEO. With HQ’s download rate continuing to sink, they feared he’d run the startup into the ground. One source suggested Yusupov might rather have seen the whole startup come crashing down with the blame placed on the product than have it come to light that he played a large hand in the fall. The tone of the letter, which was never formally delivered but sources believe the board knew of, wasn’t accusatory but a plea for transparency about the company’s future and the staff’s job security.
At a hastily convened all-hands meeting in late February, HQ investor Liew told the company his fund Lightspeed would support a search for a new CEO to replace Yusupov, and provide that new CEO with funding for 18 more months of runway. Liew told the staff he would step down from the board once that CEO was found, but the search continues and so Liew remains on HQ’s board.
Despite HQ’s struggles, it still can be valuable to advertisers, Kerry Flynn reports:
To sell sponsorships, HQ’s team touts the game’s concurrent viewership. HQ hasn’t been able to reach the same heights it had in 2018 — the game peaked with 2.4 million concurrent viewers last March during a game with a $250,000 jackpot — but it still attracts hundreds of thousands per game. For example, HQ’s “The Twilight Zone” game had about 478,000 viewers at question one, according to a recording of the game. HQ’s team compares that to current viewership on Facebook’s knockoff trivia games and Twitter’s live shows, which have concurrent viewers in the tens of thousands compared to hundreds of thousands on HQ, sources familiar with the discussions told Digiday.
Twitter might be slow to addressing any of your personal concerns about the platform and its relationship to democracy, but it’s moving fast when it comes to big movie tie-ins. Julia Alexander:
Marvel Studios partnered with pop artist Truck Torrence to create the Twitter emoji seen in the photo below. The obvious superheroes are there — Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Thor, and Hawkeye — along with newcomers like the cast of Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Thanos himself. Most importantly, there are two emoji for Korg and Miek, the best characters from Thor: Ragnarok.
Charlie Warzel calls for a new definition of privacy in his new newsletter, which you should subscribe to:
At its heart, privacy is about how that data is used to take away our control. Today, our control is chipped away in ways large and small. It may be as innocuous as using your listed preferences, browsing behavior, third-party information about your annual income and a rough understanding of the hours that you’re most susceptible to make a purchase to nudge you toward buying a pair of shoes. Or it may be as potentially life-altering as the inability to get a loan or see a job listing.
For survivors of abuse, privacy might mean the freedom to live safely without exposing sensitive location information to stalkers. For undocumented immigrants, digital privacy could mean the difference between a parent being able to drop her child off at school or rush a loved one to the hospital without fear of deportation.
Anne Helen Peterson writes about the positive impact that running a Facebook group has had on her life and work:
I started the original group in 2009, and have never monetized it. I do it because I really, really like it, and the people who are part of it tell me they really, really like it too. It’s a place where I feel like I can ask questions, or for help working through an idea that’s not quite there yet. Members come from all over the world, and, according to Facebook’s analytics, 81% identify as women. Men periodically post in the comments. But they recognize, in a way I rarely see online, that their opinions are secondary.
For many of us, these groups are one of the few remaining things tethering us to a platform that’s proven itself ineffective at combating toxicity, misinformation, and abuse in nearly every way. They provide community for people from all over the world, doing a bunch of different stuff, with a bunch of different and intersecting identities.
And finally ...
Hedgehogs are tiny and have salmonella and you should NOT snuggle with them, Eliza Brooke reports. But that hasn’t stopped them from becoming popular on Instagram:
“Hedgehogs and small exotic animals are often impulse purchases, so when [people] see a video of them eating a tiny birthday cake with a hat, you’re not actually getting that when you get your pet,” says Schindler. “Social media has encouraged ownership of animals that isn’t realistic for what they’re going to end up with.”
After hearing that a few people had gotten hedgehogs because of Lionel, Mathias took it upon herself to post about the realities of hedgehog care on her website. “They’re real animals and come with a lot of responsibility,” she says.
Please read this story before you buy a hedgehog!
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your favorite moments from Facebook’s past 15 months: firstname.lastname@example.org.