Today let’s take a break from discussing our global pandemic to talk about one of my favorite books of recent months: Sarah Frier’s No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, which is out today. It’s a meticulously reported, beautifully told story about one of the most successful apps ever created. No Filter is, at root, a marriage story — one about the union between Instagram’s precocious cofounders and Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. And while we have known for some time now that the marriage eventually went bad — Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger stepped down from their roles in September 2018 — No Filter fills in many of the details. And, along the way, it changed the way I thought about how Facebook acquires companies.
The narrative about Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram up to now has been something like this: Zuckerberg sees a fast-growing new social app, offers it a then eye-popping $1 billion, and brings the team aboard with a promise of near-total independence. Instagram attains outsized success, but that independence wanes over time, eventually resulting in a rupture that sent Systrom and Krieger packing.
The chief insight that Frier brings to the story of Instagram in No Filter is that Instagram’s vaunted independence began to evaporate from the start. And it’s not because Facebook immediately began pressing its thumb on the organization — Zuckerberg really did insist that it be left alone, particularly in the early days. Rather, it’s because Instagram was a tiny organization of just 13 people, and the company needed Facebook’s resources to stay afloat. As the organization grew, it retained a distinct identity much longer than most corporate acquisitions. But it also grew to become very much a part of Facebook.
As someone who has written a lot about content moderation, I was amused to see Instagram’s team offloading the responsibility for policing user behavior to Facebook basically upon walking in the door. Frier writes:
“Facebook had low-wage outside contractors quickly clicking through posts containing or related to nudity, violence, abuse, identity theft, and more to determine whether anything violated the rules and needed to be taken down. Instagram employees would no longer be as close to their worst content. Their nightmares would be officially outsourced.”
Years later, as bullying became a bigger problem among younger Instagram users, executives there asked Facebook for the headcount to build its own “integrity” team. Zuckerberg denied the request — Facebook had already built a large integrity team of its own and didn’t want to duplicate the efforts. The Instagram team was angered by the decision, but in some ways they had made it themselves long ago.
But that’s not to say that Facebook didn’t tamp down on Instagram’s independence over time. Many of the details were reported last year in a 12,000-word feature Wired, which I summarized in this column. Frier adds to our knowledge thanks to extensive interviews with Instagram’s co-founders, which help us understand what they were thinking as all this was going on. In one revealing passage, Frier recounts what happened when Facebook’s former chief product officer, Chris Cox, became their boss. It was just a few months before they would leave the company:
“Let’s be straight with each other,” Systrom told Cox, with Krieger in the room, once he was back from paternity leave. “I need independence. I need resources. And when something happens, I know I’m not always going to agree with it, but I need honesty. That’s what’s going to keep me here.”
A few months later, Systrom told Cox, “None of the things I asked for have happened.” And then he and Krieger quit.
Should Instagram’s pseudo-independence have lasted forever? Could it have lasted forever? It’s the big question that hangs over No Filter, and continues to be relevant to those who would like to see Instagram spun off back into an independent company. As someone who wishes Instagram had not sold to a larger company, I experienced the opening chapters as a kind of horror movie — the kind where you keep screaming at the plucky teenagers not to go into the house, knowing they are fated to go into the house, where they are certain to meet with an untimely end.
And yet I have trouble arguing that Facebook has not basically done right by Instagram. For years it let the company maintain its own idiosyncratic culture, with its emphasis on craftsmanship, resistance to spammy growth hacks, and supreme devotion to artisan coffee. And it heavily promoted the app through its powerful channels, helping to grow the company past 1 billion users.
Instagram did right by Facebook as well, showing the company that an app could succeed through careful deliberation and a focus on simplicity. By offering a distinctive alternative to the big blue app, Instagram was able to capture a younger demographic that Facebook would be lost today without.
Maybe Facebook and its subsidiary could have kept learning for one another for several more years. But the fallout of the 2016 election likely made that impossible. The year Systrom and Krieger quit was also the year of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the reckoning over Russian interference on the platform. It was the year Zuckerberg was first called to testify before Congress, and investigations into the company’s privacy and competition practices began to spin up around the world.
It was a year, in short, defined by crises, and the year Zuckerberg told top executives he had become a wartime CEO. In more peaceful times, it served Zuckerberg to have an idiosyncratic group of lieutenants running pseudo-independent kingdoms like Instagram and WhatsApp. But in wartime, loyalty to the cause became a more valuable trait than the acquired founders’ iconoclasm. And the No. 1 cause at Facebook has forever been the continued existence of Facebook.
If there’s a larger lesson here, it’s what we should understand the next time a big company acquires a small one and assures us it will remain “independent.” The first thing to know is that the independence described is likely overstated. And the second thing to know is that the independence likely comes with an expiration date. In business you can promise someone relative autonomy for three years, maybe, or five. But at some point over that time the world will change, and you’ll realize that no promise is truly forever.
The Interface Live!
I’m delighted to tell you that Frier and I will be discussing No Filter in our first virtual installment of our live event series. It will take place on Tuesday, April 21st at 5:30PM PT, and should be a great conversation. If you read the book, I hope you’ll suggest questions — and of course, join us. The event is free, and you can RSVP here. Note that only 500 people can attend — if you want to join, please RSVP soon.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬇️Trending down: Amazon fired a warehouse employee who was involved in labor organizing at a fulfillment center in Minnesota. The employee had been advocating for better working conditions and more rigorous cleaning standards.
⬇️Trending down: Amazon fired two corporate employees who were outspoken critics of the company’s climate policies and had publicly denounced the conditions at its warehouses as unsafe during the coronavirus pandemic. Amazon says the employees were fired for other reasons. Funny how they keep saying that!
⭐ Now that social distancing measures are beginning to work, there’s talk of reopening the economy. But that doesn’t mean things can or will go back to normal. In a must-read, cold-eyed look at the months and years ahead, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong discusses what it will take to move forward:
The pandemic is not a hurricane or a wildfire. It is not comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Such disasters are confined in time and space. The SARS-CoV-2 virus will linger through the year and across the world. “Everyone wants to know when this will end,” said Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh. “That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”
⭐ California governor Gavin Newsom unveiled a new guide to lifting the state’s coronavirus restrictions. During the announcement, he outlined six key indicators that will guide the state’s decision as it considers lifting the stay-at-home order, as reported by William Feuer at CNBC:
“The ability to monitor and protect our communities through testing, contact tracing, isolating, and supporting those who are positive or exposed;
The ability to prevent infection in people who are at risk for more severe COVID-19;
The ability of the hospital and health systems to handle surges;
The ability to develop therapeutics to meet the demand;
The ability for businesses, schools, and child care facilities to support physical distancing; and
The ability to determine when to reinstitute certain measures, such as the stay-at-home orders, if necessary.”
Reopening the economy will depend on companies diagnosing coronavirus cases in the workplace. Here’s how that might work. (Scott Gottlieb and Lauren Silvis / The Wall Street Journal)
Google and Apple’s contact-tracing plan will keep people anonymous. But the technology could still be vulnerable to trolls and spoofing. The Markup lays out the pros and cons of the approach. (Julia Angwin / The Markup)
A former White House technology adviser makes the case for why data privacy must be a foundational component of the country’s response to COVID-19. He says Americans should have technical control over their data so they don’t have to rely on promises from tech companies or the government about how their information will be used. (John Ackerly / Protocol)
Scripps Research launched an initiative to capture smartwatch data — from almost any brand — to see if it can predict emerging risk zones for covid-19 infections. The initiative is called the DETECT study. Can wearables be better at contact tracing than smartphones? I’m seeing a lot of pitches for this approach in my inbox. Speaking of which... (Eric Topol / The Washington Post)
New research suggests hot spots for the flu can be predicted through data collected by a smartwatch or fitness band. When a cluster of people in one region showed heart-rate elevation, it predicted a subsequent rise in flu-like infections faster and better than models the Centers for Disease Control currently use.
Coronavirus has brought out the best and worst in Medium. The blogging platform is now home to some of the top articles about COVID-19 — and a lot of misinformation. In some ways, that’s how the site was designed. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)
Viewership on YouTube news videos soared 75 perfect in recent weeks from the same time last year. Millions of people are turning to the video site for updates on the coronavirus. Personally I am turning to the video site for extremely calming videos of Ina Garten roasting chickens, but you do you!(Mark Bergen and Emily Chang / Bloomberg)
Apple launched a new tool that shows how well people are following social distancing guidelines. It gathers anonymous data from Apple Maps and works similarly to what Google is doing to show trends from Google Maps. There was a time I wouldn’t trust Apple Maps to tell me if I was in California or not. It’s come a long way! (Todd Haselton and Christina Farr / CNBC)
The advertising industry is going into such a slump it’s likely to affect even Facebook and Google. But the companies will still fare better than small publishers. (Daisuke Wakabayashi, Tiffany Hsu and Mike Isaac / The New York Times)
A viral post shared on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram claimed to show the “last gay conference” in Italy before the coronavirus outbreak. The clip is actually from a carnival in Brazil in February 2018, two years before Italy’s first confirmed COVID-19 case. (Agence France-Presse)
Facebook and Nextdoor have allowed people to come together during the coronavirus pandemic. But the platforms have also become places for people to complain about those who aren’t following social distancing rules. The rift reflects a broader debate over whether public health overtakes civil liberties in the time of a pandemic. (Yoree Koh / The Wall Street Journal)
Engagement for national and local news sources on Facebook is exploding during the coronavirus pandemic, while engagement with hyper-partisan publishers is hardly growing. The news suggests consumers are looking to local and national outlets with authority to understand the impact of the virus. (Sara Fischer and Neal Rothschild / Axios)
Total cases in the US: At least 597,834
Total deaths in the US: More than 25,000
Reported cases in California: 24,524
Reported cases in New York: 202,208
Reported cases in New Jersey: 68,824
Reported cases in Massachusetts: 26,867
Reported cases in Michigan: 25,487
Democrats are spending heavily on YouTube advertising, but they lag behind Republicans in terms of organic content. Right-wing figures like Ben Shapiro, Mark Dice, and Paul Joseph Watson have cultivated enormous followings on the platform, and haven’t been matched by equivalents on the left. (Alex Thompson / Politico)
Reddit launched a new channel to list all political ad campaigns that run on the platform dating back to January 2019, in an effort to be more transparent. The subreddit will display information on individual advertisers, how they target users and how much they spend on each campaign. (Cristiano Lima / Politico)
Zoom is going to let paying customers pick which data centers their calls are routed through starting on April 18th. The changes come after news came out that Zoom generated encryption keys for some calls from servers in China, even if none of the people on the call were physically located in the country. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Over 500,000 Zoom accounts are being sold on the dark web and hacker forums for less than a penny each. The credentials are gathered through credential stuffing attacks where hackers attempt to login to Zoom using accounts leaked in older data breaches. (Lawrence Abrams / Bleeping Computer)
Zoom burnout is real. Here’s how to opt out of social video calls, without seeming rude. (Angela Lashbrook / OneZero)
Facebook launched an experimental app for messaging close friends via Apple Watch. The app allows users to send a variety of messages with just one tap, including voice recordings, emoji, and location sharing. The messages are sent over Facebook’s own Messenger service, not SMS or iMessage. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
Google has made significant progress toward developing its own processor to power future versions of its Pixel smartphone as soon as next year— and eventually Chromebooks as well. The move could help Google better compete with Apple, which designs its own chips. (Ina Fried / Axios)
Bumble launched a new feature to allow people to expand their distance filters to match with anyone in their country, to make it easier to date while social distancing. The app previously only allowed people to connect with someone within a 100-mile range. Tinder recently made a similar move. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
ByteDance just kicked off a wave of hiring in an effort to hit 40,000 new jobs in 2020. The company is trying to expand its presence outside the US and China. (Zheping Huang / Bloomberg)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
⭐ Read my conversation with Alex Kantrowitz and Mathew Ingram about Alex’s new book, Always Day One: How The Tech Titans Plan to Stay On Top Forever. It’s an in-depth look at the culture and processes that have enabled the tech giants to grow and dominate, and features new interviews with Mark Zuckerberg and others. Here’s Alex on the question of whether the tech giants should be broken up:
On the breakup question, in my book I argue that we should seriously consider splitting some of these companies apart. Smaller entities would need to compete for suppliers by setting better terms: In Amazon’s case that’s the small businesses that sell things through its website. In Facebook and Google’s case that’s media companies producing the content that fill their feeds. Right now, these companies basically have a take or leave it approach and that ends up harming smaller businesses and leaving people with worse choices.
Invite a llama or a goat to your next Zoom meeting for under $100. An animal sanctuary in Silicon Valley called Sweet Farm is letting people pay to get farm animals to tune into their video calls. Now I know what I’m doing for my 40th birthday party in June.