Inside Instagram: A Social Media Fairy Tale with Silicon Valley Drama

Book review: No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, by Sarah Frier

Of all the social medias, Instagram has always been a bit different. Before its acquisition and absorption into the Facebook behemoth, it started out artsier than the rest. Founder Kevin Systrom was in Italy with an expensive camera. His photography instructor confiscated the device, and gave him an old plastic one instead. Stanford graduate Systrom was enamored with the purposely glitchy-looking, square photos it took, and Instagram’s aesthetic was born.

Enlisting the help of friends and colleagues, including engineer co-founder Mike Krieger, Systrom developed an app called Burbn, a sort of rival to popular check-in app Foursquare, but with Systrom’s surprisingly tricky-to-achieve dream of adding photos.

Bloomberg News technology reporter Sarah Frier writes a narrative nonfiction account of Instagram’s founding, evolution, controversies, and significant business maneuvers pre- and post-Facebook, up to the time of Systrom and Krieger leaving the company. It’s equal parts startup-app fairy tale and Silicon Valley soap opera, with vaguely menacing undertones related to current events.

Frier covers the overwhelming triumphs along with a number of issues that have plagued the app’s development over time, including that as it became more popular, users took greater risks to take more impressive photos, attempting to rise to the pressure of more followers upping their standard for content. As well as the monetization of using the app, the double-edged sword of drawing celebrities to the platform, and the trauma of filtering through dangerous or abusive content.

Then there’s the massive impact that it’s had, unparalleled by any other social media platform, on business and marketing. It’s changed the game completely. Somehow, naively, I never really grasped how ubiquitous Instagram has actually become, maybe because I still use it the same way I did when I first started using it, in around 2013-2014. That is, to take pictures of mostly outdoorsy scenes that I like and make the colors prettier. And I like to follow other people who do the same, especially in cities and countries that I enjoy looking at.

It turns out this is basically how Systrom originally envisioned people using it, once it evolved from the initial Burbn stage. The artistic aesthetic is what he strove to emphasize, and insisted on maintaining even after being swallowed by Facebook with its clunky, decidedly un-lovely layout and primary drive towards maximizing profit instead of highlighting art and creating inspiration. He wanted people to pay more attention to what’s around them and make art from it, even with then-crappy smartphone cameras. Just like he learned to do with his boxy plastic one in Florence. At the heart of it, that’s still what Instagram is to me, and I love it for that.

The thornier side is influencer culture, which is covered a lot here. It’s something I’ve mostly happily managed to avoid. But my god, what a weird business it is. Of course advertising has changed fundamentally with the rise of omnipresent social media, but the influencer side of this is so bizarre. And depressing, because meticulously curated feeds aren’t representative of real lives, although they do begin to seem that way. Not to mention the likes of the Kardashians, who are conjured throughout the book as examples of masterfully exploiting the app for personal enrichment. They post according to a schedule maintained by overlord Kris Jenner, and Kim Kardashian West earns $1 million per post. Barf.

At the same time, Frier tells stories of people whose lives were changed, brilliantly and beautifully, by Instagram. Users were selected by the app’s small, arts-focused core team, without even knowing why, to be featured on the Instagram main page or list of recommended accounts. Their follower count exploded and they quickly shucked their day jobs for full-time content creation. It’s an amazing modern-technology fairy tale, and it made me wonder how this will all look in the future — how it can be maintained with people’s need for new and constant content, and how Instagram will continue to evolve.

The villain of this saga is Mark Zuckerberg, whose MO is simple: whatever companies he acquires are intended to guide all users back to Facebook. He purchased Instagram for a then unprecedented magic number of $1 billion in 2012, and he’s got long-running feuds with any app developer whose company he can’t consume, including Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Evan Spiegel of Snapchat. The Snapchat drama here was perhaps most fascinating, because having never used it I didn’t realize that the mega-popular feature of Instagram Stories was actually directly copied from Snapchat. Facebook creepily has a way of monitoring what other apps its users are spending more time on, and analyzing this to find out what they should cannibalize or create. Hence we have Instagram Stories, which also served the interesting function of releasing some of the pressure on users to create beautiful, curated content. Stories became the go-to for less artsy, more down-to-earth, temporary content.

In a classic case of with great power coming great responsibility, Instagram was employed, along with Facebook, to spread misinformation in a targeted campaign against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Due to Facebook’s loosely overseen ad-buying program, that platform was a considerably worse offender, but Instagram was affected too. It’s quite interesting to see how these unforeseen issues that accompany massive popularity are dealt with, and Frier lays out the drama and aftermath step by step.

It’s written in a style that reminded me very much of Bad Blood, so it’s very readable and well done. It does get a bit repetitive, as the main issues faced in these companies become predictable, seeming to arise in slightly different forms over and over in the small world of social media apps. But as a revealing glimpse behind the scenes into a product that so many people use, even depend on for livelihoods and wealth beyond imagination, it was fascinating and informative, with some cautionary lessons to keep in mind.

No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram
by Sarah Frier
published April 14, 2020 by Simon & Schuster

28 thoughts on “Inside Instagram: A Social Media Fairy Tale with Silicon Valley Drama

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  1. This sounds interesting and it may confirm some of the aversions I have against social media. Besides from LinkedIn, which I use for work contacts, I have managed to stay away from social media. My friends think, I am weird! 😉

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    1. Ugh I’m so averse to it too. I also use LinkedIn and it’s been surprisingly helpful for work, especially as a freelancer, and I like looking at artsy things on Instagram but I’ve taken yearslong breaks from it and avoid Facebook, Twitter, etc. like the plague. People do think it’s weird but I’m much happier this way! 😂 I’m glad it works for you too!

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  2. I have never used Instagram. I’d be interested but I am considering getting off Facebook so I don’t want tp add another satellite. This is an interesting story of how a creative impulse gets warped by our consumer society. I have a love hate relationship with social media in general. It can be so useful but also creepy and evil. What to do? How I wish someone would start a social media app with a social conscience!

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    1. I know what you mean. I can’t stand Facebook but it’s a necessity of sorts for some connections, and I really don’t like Instagram’s connection to them. It was really frustrating to see how something with such a strong artistic component was turned into such a profit-driven thing. It bums me out. Social media is indeed such a conundrum!

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    1. It definitely changes how I see it, but not really how I use it. And by how I see it I mean more in how I notice other people’s usage and how they promote or curate, etc. I’m pretty social media-averse in general but I love Instagram for artsy things and books and food, so it’s taken me awhile to manipulate the algorithm that I also just see what I want to, and that was important for me in using it and not experiencing detrimental effects. It’s all just such an interesting lens to look at society now. I think you’d love the book!

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      1. I definitely want to read it ASAP. Their algorithm changes are always the worst. I’ve noticed a new thing where if you don’t like something in your feed it hangs out in the top until you do, which is a completely different kind of annoying.

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      2. She discusses the algorithm a bit in the book! that was something I was so curious about because yes, it is so annoying! For the longest time it was basically showing me exactly the opposite of what I’m actually interested in on the suggested page and the ads. It finally figured me out but by finally I mean like, it was two years or something. wtf!

        Not moving something away until you like it is so annoying too. It’s also done something weird lately with stories, where it won’t show me first the ones from people that I always want to see, like it’s forcing me to look through others first or something when it always used to just queue up the preferred ones first. Its logic is bizarre and seems like it’s always changing.

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  3. This is going to be a “must read” for me. I am an Insta addict, I don’t do Facebook, and Snapchat is the domain of my 19 year old son. My Insta feed has a weird mix of dogs, fashion influencers, bookstagrammers, and friends and acquaintances. Also rude humour and Jerry of the Day which has videos of people crashing on skis…scrolling Insta sometimes makes me feel like a debauched old roué out of Liaisons Dangereuses looking for something fresh to pique his jaded palate…my husband gets furious when I comment on friends/acquaintances doing glam stuff; the other day I was exclaiming about someone who put photos of them on a huge mf of a yacht in the Greek Islands – husband says it will make me discontented and depressed and although i don’t feel that at the time I suspect it does have a subliminal negative effect on one’s morale – X is on huge yacht, I am mopping kitchen floor while dog licks his bottom and teen moans about my parenting…..And I notice the way Insta can make me want to buy clothes and also how the ads on Insta creepily echo what I have been looking at on websites….so need to read this (and then I can post a review on Insta 🤣)…

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    1. That was another topic (lightly) addressed here, how subliminally it can affect you. I think that’s very true. When I took a break from it before I realized something like this was happening with me and it just didn’t feel right. It was more about where I was in my life than what others were doing, but felt like it was seeping into how I felt and making me more discontented than I already was. I guess the most important thing, if you really do enjoy using it (your description is hilarious, btw!!) is to be aware of how it might affect you and know when to take a break.

      It is SO creepy and manipulative how the ads echo what you’ve been looking at elsewhere!! Granted, I can’t really complain now that it’s always showing me restaurants in the vein of ones I’ve just been searching or ordering from, but it is a little eerie…

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  4. Great review! I really like Instagram, and have used my account there a few different ways since starting out- I’m currently using it for book pics and reviews, unsurprisingly. I wasn’t sure I was interested enough in the backstory to pick this one up when I first saw the cover, but everything you’ve said about it here sounds fascinating and the comparison to Bad Blood was the final selling point I needed. It sounds like a great deep dive into the app’s backstory that could prompt me to approach Instagram and even other social media in a more thoughtful way.

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    1. I wasn’t sure I was interested enough in it at the beginning either, but heard bits and pieces about it here and there, enough to make me think it was worth a library hold and it totally was 🙂 It reminded me so much of Bad Blood, just the way she structured it and told the story from such an inside perspective. I think if it’s an app you use frequently, it’s worth knowing more about its background and current uses, some of it was really surprising!

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  5. Thanks for featuring this story and your outstanding review💜 I don’t use Instagram much, especially after it was gobbled up by Zuckerburg, who I think will go down in history as one of the worst influencers of all time. I know a lot of book bloggers have migrated to that platform but it lacks the intimacy of conversation I find comforting on the blog platforms. So many focus on creating pretty images of the books, which makes me sad. I know I’m fairly alone in this point of view but I just can’t line anymore pockets of the owner. I’m only on Facebook because of my family (please, somebody build a competitive alternative!) or else I’d be gone.

    I originally joined Instagram because of the artsy focus, though I didn’t know that was the foundation for its creation! But then the Kardashians and their ilk seemed to swallow up the site and I disappeared.

    Thanks for letting me vent😏

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know you’re always welcome to vent here!!!

      Zuckerberg is some kind of money-obsessed robot in vaguely human form. His obsessions with money and turning Facebook into some kind of all-powerful, world-dominating megacreature were underlined ten times here. He’d always given me the creeps but even more so after reading this.

      I don’t use Instagram for book blogging, as it seems so much effort to set up really staged photos of books when I already wish I had more time to spend just reading them! I agree that it lacks the intimacy of book blogging, and discussions there don’t seem the same as here. It’s all about quick, striking images and not the depth I prefer in sharing and talking about books. For me, at least…I guess as you say many have migrated there and it works for them, but it kind of makes me sad too!

      So much of Instagram’s content is devoted to advertising and self-promotion and amassing followers, and it was unbelievable how much time actually goes into that (another topic covered here that just blew my mind). I joined it for the artsy aspect too, and was disappointed when it felt like it was changing and becoming so sleekly curated and commercialized, so I’ve taken long breaks from it from time to time. If you can really get it to where your community is just based around the kind of photos you love to see (and ads you’re willing to see, I constantly try to train it so I don’t have to see any more influencer makeup crap or BS health products) then it can still be something lovely. For the most part. Sigh. And same for me – I have to keep facebook for certain family/friends who basically refuse to communicate any other way, but I hope it eventually dies out, it’s just the worst!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I was already interested in reading this book, which hits the sweet spot of technology + society for me, but your comparison to Bad Blood makes me want to pick it up even more. I loved that book so much 🙂 Unfortunately, both are in very high demand here in Silicon Valley, so I might have to wait awhile to get this one from the library!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d love this one. It really was an excellent commentary on that society/technology connection. And the tone of it reminded me so much of Bad Blood. New York Public Library readers were very enamored with this one too so I waited several months, but I got the ebook hold while only halfway through the line for the hard copy, so if you do ebooks then that one might come in a bit faster!

      Like

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