G1PE4K BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 17, 2016: Man using the newly designed Instagram app on his iPhone 6 Plus.
© Alamy

In 2012, social media monolith Facebook shocked onlookers when it acquired a little-known photography app with a dozen staff for a plump $1bn — a deal hammered out in Mark Zuckerberg’s backyard over a barbecue, without a banker in sight.

The seemingly ad hoc acquisition has since proved to be one of Zuckerberg’s most prudent business decisions. Under the careful tutelage of slick co-founder Kevin Systrom, Instagram has garnered more than 1bn users, becoming a modern cultural phenomenon in an age of perpetual self-broadcasting.

Outwardly, it may appear to be a perfect marriage. But, as journalist and author Sarah Frier discovers in her deeply sourced No Filter, “as with most families, there was drama”.

In the case of Instagram, Systrom, more aesthete than nerdy Silicon Valley hacker, falls victim to his own success, irking a petty and paranoid Zuckerberg. Eventually, the clash culminates in the bombshell departure of Systrom and his quieter, trusted co-founder Michel Krieger towards the end of 2018.

Like the archetypal Instagram page, Frier presents the company’s early strategy as considered and well-crafted: quality trumped virality. Product decisions — such as not allowing users to be able to repost each others’ photos — were made in a bid to keep the app on the right side of cool and classy, to woo artists and creative types. “You followed [someone] because you wanted to see what they saw and experienced and created. Not someone else,” explains Frier.

This was at odds with Facebook’s unbridled quest for world dominance and growth-at-all costs mentality. Zuckerberg wanted more people on his platform; Systrom wanted perfection. The corporate cultures failed to gel. Staff at Facebook joked about the “precious sensibilities” of the Instagram lackeys.

Frier shows Systrom’s efforts to placate his owners, such as the successful launch of Instagram Stories, videos that disappear after 24 hours. For a moment, vindicated Instagram staff believed themselves to be on a par with their parent, showing Facebook the value of more thoughtful decision making and “modelling the future of social media”.

But Instagram’s individual triumphs jarred with Zuckerberg at a time when his own brainchild, Facebook proper, faced a public and regulatory backlash over a litany of privacy and content issues, and a slower pace of user growth.

Systrom keeps his side of the deal — delivering growth and revenues — but, in Frier’s telling, a jealous Zuckerberg does not keep his promise of abundant resources and independence for Instagram. Rather, he asks a team of data scientists to look into “cannibalisation” — whether Instagram could eat into the main app’s success — and then appears to go out of his way to stunt Instagram’s growth. He ensures Instagram pushes as much traffic as possible on to Facebook, the so-called ‘blue app’. A similar link on Facebook’s homepage guiding users to Instagram is quietly removed.

The David-and-Goliath tussle is deftly interwoven by Frier with another tale: the transformation of Instagram itself, from the photo app known for its artsy filters to the creator of “creators”. The shift is not accidental. Unlike Zuckerberg, Systrom enjoys hobnobbing, and woos Hollywood to his platform — not through studios, agencies or labels, but via direct relationships. The draw for celebrities is simplicity and the ability to manage their own accounts, offering a glimpse into their lives to bond better with fans.

Numerous anecdotes suggest the Kardashians, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift have Instagram’s team on speed dial as they navigate the app’s explosive growth and upgrades. Later, there comes the opportunity for them to cash in on their content by promoting glossy products, or “sponsored content”. The mini-economy of “influencing” is born.

Frier mulls two unintended consequences of Instagram’s transformation with lively case studies. The first is the impact on users’ mental health, with bullying rife and unattainable beauty standards pervasive. One pair of “travel influencers” meticulously research each location where they shoot, taking 500-1,000 shots before whittling them down to one, which is then Photo­shopped and beautified further. “The flurry of aspirational branded posts would manipulate the masses into feeling bad about their normal lives,” Frier writes. “Instagram ended up fuelling a problem not just about truth in advertising, but about truth in life.”

The second challenge is the alarming behavioural incentives that the platform creates for influencers, a rat race where users hungry for fame and fortune spend hours learning how to game the system and its algorithms to boost follower counts. Social media becomes “a force that defines human nature, through incentives baked into the way products are designed”, Frier notes.

In the final chapter, Systrom quits, frustrated as Zuckerberg bulldozes ahead with plans to merge Facebook’s apps into one system. Instagram is left grappling with those two issues. Does it matter? Perhaps not: one is left questioning how long Instagram’s cultish appeal might last as it morphs with the rest of Facebook’s “family of apps”.

Occasionally, No Filter reads like a book by a journalist for other journalists. But ultimately, Frier delivers a compelling tale of jealousy. Instagram is powered by its users’ aspirational desires and embodied by the shallow and homogenous “influencer industry”. Similarly, Zuckerberg cannot bear to lose ground to a smaller minnow, even if he already owns it. We are yet to see if this will cost him dearly.

No Filter: The Inside Story of How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity and Our Culture, by Sarah Frier, Simon & Schuster/Random House Business, RRP$28/£20, 352 pages

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