3 thoughts on “Notes on No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram

  1. Introduction. This is a short intro, mostly giving an overview of IG’s popularity and cultural importance. In 2018 IG hit one billion monthly users, an utterly ridiculous number.

    As an early user (in the days when IG was an iPhone-only app), I remember days when it wasn’t yet a marketing or money-making tool, so I’m looking forward to remembrances of its beginnings.

    Frier writes in the intro:

    On Instagram, you could dive into the life of a reindeer herder in Norway or a basket weaver in South Africa. And you could share and reflect on your own life in a way that felt profound too.

    Chris Messina (who invented the hashtag) said

    It gives you a glimpse of humanity and changes your whole perspective on everything and the importance of it. Instagram is this mirror on ourselves, and it allows each of us to contribute our own experience to the understanding of this world.

    Frier continues

    As Instagram grew, its founders tried to preserve this sense of discovery. They became aesthetic tastemakers for a generation, responsible for imbuing us with a reverence for visually arresting experiences that we can share with our friends and strangers for the reward of likes and followers.

    Great. I don’t dispute this is where IG has gone. It almost seems inevitable simply because of its success. Before FB bought it for a billion dollars, it was something new and exciting and powerful but not yet this thing it is today. I’m most interested in reading up to the moment before FB purchased it.

  2. Chapter 1: Project Codename

    Codename was the working name for Instagram before its developers sat down to pick a name, something they didn’t do until very shortly before its launch.

    This chapter covers the origins of Instagram, giving the backstory of its founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, focusing mostly on Systrom.

    Systrom was a student at Stanford when he was first recruited by Mark Zuckerberg. He turned Zuckerberg down in favor of staying in school, but what’s really interesting is that Zuckerberg is only one of several people who would later be involved in the beginnings of enormous tech companies, including Twitter, Uber, and Photobucket.

    One part of the history I really like is how Systrom for all his life jumped from one passion to another, with “academic fervor.” He would be a total geek about (for one example) DJing and immerse himself fully in it before moving on to his next interest. One of the passions he stuck with was photography.

    Studying abroad in Florence, he enrolled in a photography class where his instructor didn’t like his scientific, technical, academic approach to shooting pictures. He took Systrom’s expensive camera and handed him a Holga, a cheap, plastic-bodied camera with a fixed-focus lens that took crappy pictures. The instructor charged Systrom with learning to shoot good photos with a camera that could only take bad pictures.

    “You have to learn to love imperfection,” said his instructor.

    I love this. Embracing art as messy is something I’ve explored these past several years, and I like how several years after Systrom learned to do it, he applied the sensibility to the development of Instagram. Phone cameras are terrific now, but remember that in 2010 they were pretty crappy.

    For most of its early days, Instagram was Burbn, an app for people who go to bars in San Francisco. It let people know where you were, and it leave ratings for bars. Unlike other apps doing similar stuff, it included a photo sharing feature, letting you EMAIL a photo through the app to the app’s server, which would post it to your rating (or something like that).

    As you can figure now, Systrom and Krieger, after receiving backing from a few investors, stripped it all down and focused on the photo-sharing part, keeping the functionality deliberately simple, homing in on the “like” functionality, plus quick sharing to Twitter and Facebook.

    The first IG photo posted on July 16, 2010. IG officially launched to the public on October 6. I joined and posted my first photo on November 12 the same year, the photo attached to this comment. As you can see, it got two likes. 🙂 In those earliest days I didn’t have a lot of friends on IG yet.

    Although IG was born in Silicon Valley, where all these other great things were going on, Systrom and Krieger “made a lot of counterintuitive choices to set IG apart”:

    1. They aimed to do just one thing — photography — really well.
    2. Instead of trying to get everyone to use their app, they invited only people they thought would be likely to spread the world to their followers elsewhere, especially designers and creatives. In that sense they were like a luxury brand, manufacturing coolness and tastefulness around what they’d built.
    3. Instead of building something new and bold, they improved on what they’d seen other apps do. They made a tool that was much simpler and faster to use than anyone else’s, taking up less of users’ time as they were out living the experiences IG wanted them to capture.

    Takeaway quotes:

    The founders took over a whiteboard in one of the Dogpatch Labs conference rooms and had a brainstorming session that would serve as the foundation for their entire leadership philosophy: to ask first what problem they were solving, and then to try and solve it in the simplest way possible.

    “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.” Everyone with a smartphone would be an amateur photographer, if they wanted to be.

    The founders valued feel and simplicity over technological innovation. By keeping the product minimalist — just for posting and liking photos — they would spend less time developing it, and would be able to test it on the public before spending any more money.

    Instagram’s early popularity was less about the technology and more about the psychology — about how it made people feel. The filters made reality look like art. And then, in cataloging that art, people would start to think about their lives differently, and themselves differently, and their place in society differently.

  3. Chapter 2: The Chaos of Success

    This 20-page chapter covers the early success of IG: who was drawn to it VERY early (and why), and what it implied for the direction smartphones might take, the way we think about them and the way we interact with them. I love this kind of talk.

    It also covers the early days of IG’s interactions with other movers in social media, mostly Twitter and FB. I’m a bit less interested in this kind of talk, but it’s still interesting.

    …some of the world’s new iPhone users had seen a filtered image somewhere on the internet and thought, How do I take photos like that? It meant that the people who downloaded the app to ride the trend had started to look at their surroundings differently.

    New Instagram users found that basic things, like street signs and flower bushes and cracks in the paint of walls, all of a sudden were worth paying attention to, in the name of creating interesting posts.

    As a photography hobbyist since fourth grade and a photography teacher since a few years earlier, I had already developed this fascination with beauty in the mundane and had seen it grow in my students as they learned digital photography, and I loved seeing it grow in IG with my friends — actual friends and new “friends” I made because I liked their photos or they liked mine.

    It used to annoy me to see photography obviously shot on high-quality DSLR equipment shared on IG. I thought it violated the spirit of IG in general, and would sometimes call them on it, asking in comments, “Wow, this looks amazing for an iPhone photo!” Eventually I got tired of trying to be the IG police. At first I just avoided the pros using IG to flout their portfolios, but later I just accepted that IG was about photography, wherever and however it was shot.

    Still, I long for the days when IG was driven by people with poor-quality smartphone cameras just trying to make something lovely out of crappy pictures.

    If Facebook was about friendships, and Twitter was about opinions, Instagram was about experiences — and anyone could be interested in anyone else’s virtual experiences, anywhere in the world.

    I miss this too. And I miss the days before Twitter was “about opinions.” So many of the best platforms survive because they become what the users make it, and my experience is that it always degrades the product.

    In those early days, IG’s founders stuck to its ideals and kept outside investors about as minimal as possible. It was still a three- or four-person team when

    “Other people won’t always be in this for us,” Systrom realized. They could trust each other, and that was basically it. Nobody else was going to have Instagram’s best interests in mind.

    Going against a lot of Silicon Valley conventional (and money-laden) wisdom, IG stuck to its guns, with the support of its primary advisors/investors. Frier writes, “Investor Steve Anderson reminded Systrom and Krieger of their strongest asset. ‘Anybody can build Instagram the app,’ he said, ‘but not everybody can build Instagram the community.'”

    IG’s founders spent a lot of time cultivating this community, and as someone who experienced it in its first few months, I have to say this is the real reason it took off. Man, Twitter was the same way even without Twitter’s seriously cultivating it. I was just lucky with Twitter — the spirit of its early Hawaii users was hugely one of community, and I’ve made a lot of real-life friends because of it. It’s why I’ll always love Twitter.

    More on this difference:

    Systrom had been at Google, where anyone with an advanced engineering or science degree from an Ivy League school was a shoo-in, giving the place its academic feel for always running tests and optimizing. He’d also seen early Twitter, which attracted anarchists and misfits, giving the place its free speech and anti-establishment ethos. Instagram’s top candidates were people with interests beyond technology, whether it was art, music, or surfing.

    IG kind of shifted because of its users, just as Twitter did. The big moment was when Justin Bieber joined, and IG found his followers list growing by 50 every minute.

    As younger users joined, they invented a new etiquette on Instagram, which involved trading likes for likes and follows for follows. “Instagram’s community of earnest people telling interesting stories in tiny moments really evolved to be super pop culture,” [remembers Cole Rise, one of the earliest users, and developer of the early filters]

    Systrom and Krieger still insisted on a few things, in understanding their (and their company’s) limits.

    1. They would not pay celebrities or brands.
    2. They would not overcomplicate their product.
    3. They would not be pulled into investor drama.
    4. They would play nice with the tech giants.
    5. They would foster community through InstaMeets
    6. They would try to make Instagram live up to Zollman’s ideals of a friendly place on the internet.

    What follows is an interesting rundown of policing content, at places like Twitter, YouTube, and FB, and how it played out on IG. The usership was growing too quickly for them to actively keep an eye on everything getting posted.

    There’s also a section on why IG never added a re-share button, despite users’ and outside advisors’ pleas for one. They didn’t want everyone to focus on going viral; they wanted people’s experience with the product to be a smooth interaction with other people’s worlds — not one degree removed. Frier writes, “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.”

    The last section of this chapter deals with Twitter’s off-on interest in acquiring IG, but it’s only of passing interest to me. It’s a bit too politics-laden to really keep me jazzed, ‘though I like seeing how there was all this movement in the days leading up to the actual ridiculous acquisition by FB.

    This takes us up to March 2012, when IG is turning down acquisition bids and IG’s staff is still determinedly nurturing and cultivating community.

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