View profile

The end of Instagram

Revue
 
Some time on Monday, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger appear to have snapped. Tensions between the Inst
 
September 25 · Issue #213 · View online
The Interface
Some time on Monday, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger appear to have snapped.
Tensions between the Instagram founders and their parent company had been simmering for months. But tensions are the default state at any company that has been acquired, and Systrom and Krieger had navigated those waters ably for six years.
High-level corporate executive departures generally — and Facebook departures in particular — are stage-managed to minimize drama. A replacement leader is identified and named internally. A public-relations plan is developed and put into action. An anodyne blog post announces the news. At Facebook, the executive’s departure is accompanied by well wishes, posted as status updates from Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and others.
The Instagram founders’ exit, by contrast, was as close as Facebook has ever come to the flight attendant who chugged a beer and pulled the emergency chute on his final day of work. The most striking thing in the immediate aftermath was the chaos: spokespeople at Facebook and Instagram didn’t know what was going on, beyond the brief initial story published in the New York Times by Mike Isaac.
Eventually, the choreography of the exit began to resemble something more Facebook-like. The founders posted a farewell note to the Instagram blog. (In a next-level stunt, Systrom used the corporate blog to very nearly confirm that he would form a new company with Krieger.) Zuckerberg offered a few words — though he posted nothing to his profile. Systrom and Krieger later tweeted their farewells, and posted valedictory ‘grams. None of that could cover up for the fact that it all had been a rush job.
(A rush job, incidentally, that created other rush jobs: The Wall Street Journal and Fast Company both had recent interviews with the founders in the can, and hustled them up before their words could go entirely stale.)
As someone who knows the founders told me, Systrom and Krieger are very low-drama executives. So why leave in such dramatic fashion? What invisible line were they asked to cross? I suspect we’ll find out eventually. (And if you know — or just have a theory — I’m all ears.)
So what do we know for sure? And what does it tell us about the future?
Most of the reporting done today traces that familiar narrative from post-acquisition life: simmering tensions that suddenly boiled over. As Kurt Wagner and Kara Swisher reported at Recode, a recent decision to remove Instagram branding from photos that are reshared to Facebook was among the slights that worsened the founders’ relationship with their parent company.
Deepa Seetharaman’s account of how these tensions grew is the most definitive one I read today. Multiple reports today name the most proximate cause of the founders’ exit as Zuckerberg’s decision this spring to reorganize all product divisions under Cox, to whom Systrom would now report. This added a complicating layer between Systrom and Zuckerberg at a time when Instagram has become more important to Facebook’s future than ever before.
Here’s Seetharaman:
Mr. Systrom had previously technically reported to Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, but that reporting structure wasn’t widely known. Some within Instagram believed the new structure would give Mr. Systrom much less access to Mr. Zuckerberg, with whom he previously interacted frequently. “It was always Kevin and Mark,” said a person familiar with the situation.
At the same time, a death-by-a-thousand-cuts dynamic was playing out between Instagram and its parent company. For years, Facebook had left Instagram more or less alone. Facebook was in hyper-growth mode, printing money thanks to its lucrative News Feed advertisements, and Zuckerberg was content to let his $1 billion acquisition grow at its own pace.
Then Facebook hit its saturation point in North America, the sharing of original posts declined, and a series of crises related to the 2016 US presidential election battered its image. Only Instagram survived with its reputation mostly intact. As the crown jewel in Facebook’s product lineup, it became the subject of regular meddling from the parent organization. (My colleague Chris Welch rounds up some of the most prominent examples here.)
Some of the battles can appear petty from the outside. The decision to strip Instagram attribution from posts that are re-shared to Facebook, which took place earlier this year, was a very big deal to Systrom, I’m told. At the same time, he was fighting off all manner of Zuckerberg incursions — badged notifications inside Instagram begging people to open Facebook being maybe the most prominent example. None of them meaningfully improved Instagram; they were simply the cost of being acquired.
Every ask leads to another one, and it seems clear Systrom and Krieger were spending an increasing amount of time asking themselves what they could live with. As Ben Thompson says, the founders’ fate was sealed the day they sold to Facebook. But still: it didn’t have to end like this
And what does it mean? For starters, this is the end of Instagram as we know it. Systrom and Krieger were deeply involved in day-to-day product decisions, and retained an unusual degree of autonomy over the company. For years, they were careful to the point of being obstinate. Even as they began to expand Instagram’s suite of offerings, they remained deeply cautious. (Features for creating groups of “favorites” and a standalone messaging app have been in testing for 15 months and 10 months, respectively.)
Many talented employees remain at Instagram, of course. It’s a coveted job at Facebook, not least because of its ritzy new office in downtown San Francisco. Robby Stein and Vishal Shah, both directors of product management, and Ian Spalter, who leads design efforts, are frequently mentioned as rising stars in the organization. Adam Mosseri, who formerly ran the News Feed, is similarly well liked. But increasingly, their task will be to build a front end for Facebook’s advertising network. The autonomy Instagram once enjoyed is gone.
The founders’ hasty departure leaves many projects in flux. IGTV, a pet project of Systrom’s that was nearly killed for fear that it competed too closely with Facebook Watch, could be strangled in its crib. (It has been slow to take off.) As I first reported earlier this month, Instagram is building a standalone shopping app as well. The fate of Instagram Direct will have to be decided as well.
Systrom — a new father — and Krieger will take some time off from tech, though one suspects not too much. Systrom has interviews scheduled with The Information and Wired in coming weeks, and perhaps we’ll learn more about his departure then. (It seems likelier he’ll demure. But maybe not!)
Nothing can change the fact that this was an extraordinary exit, and one that has left Facebook employees reeling. Some unknown thing changed for the founders this week, and it pushed them out the door months or even years before they were ready. Prior to this week, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger were nowhere done building Instagram. And whatever they build next will have Mark Zuckerberg’s full attention.

Democracy
Inside the private Justice Department meeting that could lead to new investigations of Facebook, Google and other tech giants
Google CEO Sundar Pichai to Meet With Top GOP Lawmakers
Facebook Has Removed More Than A Dozen Big Conservative And Liberal Political Pages
Big Tech’s Business Model Is Broken, Report Says
Safari’s “Siri Suggested” Search Results Highlighted Conspiracy Sites And Fake News
Just Don’t Call It Privacy
Google Names New Privacy Chief, Offers Framework for Regulation
#ElectionWatch: Migration to Gab in Brazil
Elsewhere
Twitter releases new policy to ban dehumanizing speech
How Twitter’s New Safety Policies Are Created
Why Instagram’s founders are resigning: independence from Facebook weakened
Facebook’s Carolyn Everson: Rebuilding Trust Is Company’s ‘Total Focus’
Launches
Instagram adds notifications to its browser app and Instagram Lite
Takes
Facebook Needs Instagram's Systrom, Krieger More Than Ever
Joe Bernstein
I like Instagram too but the narrative emerging that it's fundamentally different and healthier/better than the other social networks and therefore must be protected is kind of a joke
11:54 AM - 25 Sep 2018
Confidential to the University of Oregon
Like 30 of you signed up for The Interface today! Welcome aboard, and apologies in advance for the general absence of Oregon-related content.
And finally ...
Instagram’s Kevin Systrom on the Platform He Built for One Billion Users
Talk to me
Send the real reason Mike and Kevin left Instagram and literally nothing else!!! casey@theverge.com.
Did you enjoy this issue?
If you don't want these updates anymore, please unsubscribe here
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here
Powered by Revue