Book Review – No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram

Instagram is so popular in our life that it became part of our vernacular: Instagrammable. I wanted to learn more about a young startup that was founded in the beginning of the 2010s, got acquired by Facebook for a monstrous amount at the time and eventually grew to become one of the biggest social networks in the world. This book provides a good insight into the history of Instagram.

The history of Instagram started with Kevin Systrom, a Standard graduate. He passed up an opportunity to join two startups in their early days that would become multi-billion companies (Facebook and Twitter). He worked for a short time at Google before venturing out on his own. Along with Mike Krieger, a graduate student from Brazil, he developed an app called Burbn that attracted interest and capital from some of the angel investors in Silicon Valley. Burbn was later pivoted to become Instagram after a soul-searching discussion between the two founders. After 18 months of hard work, Instagram was bought by Facebook for $1 billion. The Instagram team and the two co-founders managed to keep their relative high level of independence within the Blue Brand for about 5-6 years. A score of disagreements over strategic decisions and a realization that it was Zuckerberg that effectively owned Instagram, the two founders left the company.

What fascinates me about the book is the chronicle of important decisions that the founders made along the way, especially decisions on product development. From the onset of Instagram, the founders, especially Systrom, wanted to focus on genuine and quality connections with users. While Facebook cheapened the relationship with users by prioritizing the sharing of news and articles, Instagram took time and effort to preserve the unique qualities of Instagram. For instance, they refused to have a share feature because they wanted users to have a genuine connection with whom they followed. Specifications for photos on Instagram were stricter than on Facebook. Systrom emphasized the importance of aesthetic quality of Instagram by personally approving Instagram ads at first, limiting to one advertiser a day originally, guiding celebrity users on how to post nice photos and setting up the tone for the culture as well as how users perceive Instagram.

One can argue that Instagram’s founders sold it too soon, but the counter argument is that without Facebook’s resources and infrastructure, Instagram wouldn’t like have achieved the growth it did that quickly. In the end, the hierarchy and essentially cultural clash with Facebook drove the founders out.

The book provides an exciting story of how little features, care for users, commitment to quality and great decisions can lead to a great product, especially when put in contrast to Facebook. I have been super annoyed by the amount of ads on Instagram. You can’t scroll more than 3 or 4 posts without an ads. I don’t think the founders would have approved that, but in the end, it wouldn’t have been their choice to make either.

If you are interested in a popular company’s history, entrepreneurship or product development/strategy, this book will be a nice one to pick up on a slow hot weekend. Isn’t it interesting to learn why there is no share button, why there is only one place you can post a hyperlink, why little details on Instagram came into beings? The book also sheds some light onto Mark Zuckerberg, who cast a long show over much of Instagram’s history.

“When Systrom joined in 2006, it had almost 10,000 employees. Google, far more functional and established than tiny Odeo, was led mostly by former Stanford students making data-based decisions. It was the culture that drove homepage leader Marissa Mayer, who later became CEO of Yahoo!, to famously test 41 shades of blue to figure out what color would give the company’s hyperlinks the highest click-through rate. A slightly purpler blue shade won out over slightly greener shades, helping boost revenue by $200 million a year. Seemingly insignificant changes could make a huge difference when applied to millions or billions of people.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Krieger and Systrom started the exercise by making a list of the top three things people liked about Burbn. One was Plans, the feature where people could say where they were going so friends could join them. Another was photos. The third was a tool to win meaningless virtual prizes for your activity, which was mostly a gimmick to get people to log back in.

Not everybody needed plans or prizes. Systrom circled “photos.” Photos, they decided, were ubiquitous, useful to everybody, not just young city dwellers.

“There’s something around photos,” Kevin said. His iPhone 3G took terrible pictures, but it was only the beginning of that technology. “I think there will be an inflection point where people don’t carry around point-and-shoots anymore, they’re just going to carry around these phones.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Their first prototype was named Scotch, a relative to bourbon. It allowed people to swipe through photos horizontally and tap to like them, similar to a Tinder before its time. They used it for a few days before going back to the Burbn idea, doubting their instincts. And then they tried a new concept that would allow people to scroll through photos vertically, showing the most recent post first, like Twitter.

All of the photos would use as few pixels as possible, so that they would load quickly, helping solve problem number one—only 306 pixels across, the minimum required to display a photo on an iPhone with 7-pixel borders on each side. The photos would be square, giving users the same creative constraint for photography as Systrom’s teacher in Florence gave him. It was similar to how Twitter only let people tweet in 140-character bursts. That would help solve, but not fully solve, problem number two.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“The founders picked their first users carefully, courting people who would be good photographers—especially designers who had high Twitter follower counts. Those first users would help set the right artistic tone, creating good content for everyone else to look at, in what was essentially the first-ever Instagram influencer campaign, years before that would become a concept.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Krieger did build a re-share button but never released it to the public. The founders thought it would violate the expectations you had when you followed someone. You followed them because you wanted to see what they saw and experienced and created. Not someone else.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Instagram, on the other hand, was trying to build a premium experience, brainstorming directly with advertisers about their ideas and manually placing their ads. They knew that this system couldn’t work forever, but Systrom and Krieger always urged people to do the simplest thing first, the way they had when they first built the app. Working manually on a small version of the product made more sense than spending precious engineering resources and navigating politics with Facebook’s ads sales team, for a system that might not ultimately work.

Using a strategy similar to that he’d employed when he founded the company—picking launch partners like Burberry and Lexus who would get it—Systrom personally approved every ad. Especially since now Instagram’s brand was too precious to risk letting anyone and everyone advertise however they’d like.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Only one brand per day, Systrom had decided—that felt right. It was nonnegotiable: if Louis Vuitton called wanting the twentieth of the month, they would decline if Ben & Jerry’s already had the slot. All the names of the early advertisers were mapped out in red marker on a whiteboard calendar. An employee would print the potential ads out; then Systrom would go through them, one by one, deciding what was good enough and what wasn’t. If an ad wasn’t good enough, he would protest.

At one point Systrom was concerned that the food in one of the branded posts looked unappetizing, especially the French fries, which appeared soggy. “I don’t want to run it like this,” he told Jim Squires, his new ads lead, who had come over from Facebook.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

New employees of Instagram, especially those coming from Facebook, would regularly suggest sharing tools to help increase the amount of posts on the app, only to be shot down by Systrom and Krieger. Public re-sharing was such a popular request that other entrepreneurs built apps like Regrann and Repost to attempt to fill the need, but these were no substitute for an in-app function. This made it harder to get noticed, but in some ways made it easier to build a personal brand. All your posts were yours. That was what the founders wanted.

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

Trump had outspent Clinton between June and November, paying Facebook $44 million compared to her $28 million. And, with Facebook’s guidance, his campaign had operated like a tech company, rapidly testing ads using Facebook’s software until they found the perfect messaging for various audiences. Trump’s campaign had a total of 5.9 million different versions of his ads, compared to Clinton’s 66,000, in a way that “better leveraged Facebook’s ability to optimize for outcomes,” the employee said.

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“By December 2016, Instagram was letting users turn off comments for posts entirely if they wanted. Systrom’s willingness was in stark contrast to the attempts by Facebook and Twitter to err on the side of leaving content up, in an attempt to promote environments they said were neutral and open, but that in practice were rarely policed.

The same ideas, of letting users turn off comments or block them according to keyword, had been suggested several times at Facebook over the years. But it had never stuck. If there were fewer comments, there were fewer push notifications, and fewer reasons for users to come back to the site. Even on Instagram’s team, the former Facebook employees promised Systrom that they would find a way to build out the tool so it was difficult to find, and applicable only to one post at a time. That way, it wouldn’t be used as often.

Thanks but no thanks, Systrom said. He explained that he wasn’t worried about losing engagement, that the team was thinking too short-term. Over the long term, if the tool was easy to find and well publicized, people would have more affinity for Instagram, and the product would better weather storms of bad publicity, like the kind Facebook was starting to receive.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“So that summer, Zuckerberg directed Javier Olivan, Facebook’s head of growth, to draw up a list of all the ways Instagram was supported by the Facebook app. And then he ordered the supporting tools turned off.

Systrom again felt punished for Instagram’s success.

Instagram was also no longer allowed to run free promotions within the Facebook news feed—the ones that told people to download the app because their Facebook friends were already there. That had always brought a steady stream of new users to Instagram.

Another of the new changes would actually mislead Facebook users in an attempt to prevent them from leaving for Instagram. In the past, every time an Instagram user posted with the option to share on Facebook, the photo on Facebook said it came from Instagram, with a link back to the app. Instagram’s analysis showed that between 6 and 8 percent of all original content on Facebook was cross-posted from Instagram. Often, the attribution would be a cue for people to comment on the photo where it was originally posted. But with the change mandated by the growth team, that attribution would disappear, and the photo would seem as if it had been posted to Facebook directly”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

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