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An Instagram mystery, solved

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Last year, in an effort to give shape to The Interface's coverage area, I posted a public list of que
 
April 16 · Issue #316 · View online
The Interface
Last year, in an effort to give shape to The Interface’s coverage area, I posted a public list of questions that I hoped to investigate over time. I saved my favorite one for last: why did Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger really leave Instagram?
In the months since the co-founders abruptly quit, we’ve gotten more details about the split. We learned that increasing tension with Facebook, combined with an unusually long post-acquisition tenure at their acquirer, had made them antsy. But we still never knew what specifically led them to resign, or why it was announced in such a hurry.
Today, with the publication of Nick Thompson and Fred Vogelstein’s 12,000-word account of Facebook’s past year and a half, I am happy to say that the mystery is now solved. Drawing on interviews with 65 current and former employees, the Wired authors paint a detailed picture of the steps leading to Systrom and Krieger’s departure.
According to their reporting, the timeline goes like this:
  • Instagram’s rapid rise bred resentment at Facebook, where some top executives came to feel that the acquisition was siphoning growth and engagement away from the core Facebook app.
  • As Mark Zuckerberg prepared to reorganize his executive team for the first time ever, the Instagram founders pushed for then-News Feed chief Adam Mosseri to be their official delegate from the mothership. They liked him and thought he could be an effective buffer against intrusive Facebook demands.
  • After Systrom participated in magazine profiles, Zuckerberg declared that no one else could do so without permission from him or Sheryl Sandberg.
  • In an earnings call in July 2018, Zuckerberg took credit for Instagram’s success, saying “We believe Insta­gram has been able to use Facebook’s infrastructure to grow more than twice as quickly as it would have on its own.”
  • Zuckerberg then charged his then-head of growth, Javier Olivan, to make a list of all the ways Facebook boosted Instagram’s growth. Some of those supports included a tag on Instagram photos shared to Facebook noting where they had originally been posted, and allowing Instagram to use a person’s Facebook friends to suggest Instagram follows for them.
  • Zuckerberg then told Systrom he was taking away all those supports, apparently to protect the health of the Facebook app.
  • Systrom sent a memo to Instagram employees informing them that Zuckerberg was taking away the growth tools, saying he opposed them but the company had no choice but go along. Facebook was terrified the memo would leak.
  • Systrom then immediately peaced out for a few months of paternity leave.
  • With Systrom on leave, Facebook began testing location tracking and a disgusting hamburger button inside Instagram, offending Systrom’s delicate sensibilities.
  • Systrom began to suspect that Zuckerberg was intent on making him miserable enough that he would quit. (See: hamburger button.)
  • Systrom and Krieger decided to quit soon after the former came back from paternity leave. After they informed their team that they intended to leave, the news leaked to the New York Times, blindsiding the communications team and forcing Facebook to rush up a hurried goodbye. (The rush job was one of the main lingering mysteries about the departure.)
I find all of this … highly plausible? It’s also somewhat tragic: as the Wired story notes, Instagram’s design has made it harder for bad actors to misuse it, and it retains an appeal for North American users that the core Facebook app has long since squandered. You can debate how much Facebook contributed to Instagram’s success — and surely it contributed a lot — but Systrom and Krieger had unshakeable beliefs about app design that served them very well, and now that they’re gone all that is left is for Instagram to become a reskinned version of the Facebook app.
As for the rest of the Wired piece, it could serve as a nice introduction to Facebook’s past year and a half for anyone who hasn’t been following along with The Interface. The authors gamely try to weave a thread through Cambridge Analytica, the challenges of content moderation, executive departures, the future of the news industry, Joel Kaplan’s malign influence, fights among the communications team, Zuckerberg’s comments about the Holocaust, last fall’s data breach, the Definers scandal, the Facebook Research app scandal, and the creeping threat of regulation.
My main takeaway is that an app that has 2.7 billion users is going to have a lot of things happening inside it, and to it, and that it might make a good subject for a daily newsletter.
In any case, I am glad that a core mystery about Facebook’s past year and a half can now officially said to be closed. Facebook surely runs smoother now that recalcitrant product leaders like Systrom and Krieger (and WhatsApp’s Jan Koum and Brian Acton) have left the company. Whether it runs better, though, is still an open question.

Democracy
Thousands of leaked Facebook documents show Mark Zuckerberg as ‘master of leverage’ in plan to trade user data
Trump's 2020 plan: Target seniors on Facebook
Russian lawmakers approve plan to take more control over internet traffic
Google blocks Chinese app TikTok in India after court order
Twitter Left Up Ilhan Omar Death Threats So Law Enforcement Could Investigate
How Jack Dorsey plans to change Twitter
TED 2019: Jack Dorsey Is Captain of the Twittanic
Calling out Big Tech for subverting Western democracy
A YouTuber Standing As A UKIP Candidate Invited Supporters To A Gaming Community That Has Chatrooms Filled With White Supremacist And Anti-Semitic Content
Elsewhere
Facebook’s Portal will now surveil your living room for half the price
Facebook is discontinuing P2P payments in Messenger in the UK and France on June 15
Logan Paul helps Alex Jones avoid YouTube ban
Mutiny at HQ Trivia fails to oust CEO
Inside HQ’s attempt to grow its ad business
Launches
Twitter introduces 40 adorable Avengers emoji, including Korg from Thor: Ragnarok
Takes
Privacy Is Too Big to Understand
Private Groups Might Be The Last Good Thing About Facebook
And finally ...
How Hedgehogs Became Instagram’s Most Miserable Celebrities
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your favorite moments from Facebook’s past 15 months: casey@theverge.com.
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