Of course, like most technology novels of the past decade, even ones where he does not have an active role, Mark Zuckerberg is the most important factor of this book.
The most compelling subjects for books are often the most challenging. When you think of a book to be written on Instagram, a single book may well be less, given its sheer influence on our lives.
A Game of Thrones-style magnum opus could even be justified. Instagram, beyond social media, has defined lives. It has made words like filter, throwback and influencer mainstream language, inside and outside the social network.
But what went inside the making of this Facebook-owned company, and why did its founders quit suddenly in 2018? Bloomberg News journalist Sarah Frier’s debut book is a pacy, breathtaking read about one of the most influential companies- of our time certainly, maybe even all time.
Business books on mainstream subjects and figures can often be tricky. Delve too much into the nuts and bolts- finances and management, and a lot of readers can feel isolated. Keep it superficial and over-arching- well it becomes superficial, and no discerning reader will take it seriously.
Frier balances the two carefully, as she explores how Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger started the photo-sharing platform which got acquired by Facebook less than two years into founding for a billion dollars. In 2019, Instagram brought in $20 billion of revenue for Facebook.
If you read technology and startup books regularly, the familiar elements are all there. Starry-eyed founders launching an app not sure it would work, small changes (the filter, for example) becoming defining later on, jealousy and rivalry among peers, and dizzying growth and a truckload of money for everyone in the journey (although early employees of Instagram famously made far less than any other buyout, as Frier explains).
But what takes No Filter to the next level, is the seamless mix of business and finance with culture and celebrities, stardom and ego. Frier talks about how the influencer culture really got started- a movement present across media today- most notably China’s TikTok.
She has hordes of memorable celebrity anecdotes- from Ashton Kutcher being far more savvy than his TV series and movies show him to be- to Kim Kardashian and the now-regular drama and shenanigans (also more relevant now as her husband Kanye West is running for US President).
The details of how Instagram differentiated itself are crucial. CEO Kevin Systrom had an editorial strategy in place through and through. Certain kinds of posts- premium, leisurely and relaxed, were always encouraged. Back then, no social network actively courted a certain kind of content. Parent company Facebook is in regulatory crosshairs as I write this, for not monitoring or filtering dangerous content.
Of course, like most technology novels of the past decade, even ones where he does not have an active role, Mark Zuckerberg is the most important factor of this book. Instagram is considered one of the greatest acquisitions in business history, purely from a financial standpoint. Today, such a deal will see more regulatory scrutiny.
Frier diligently chronicles Zuckerberg’s insecurities and fears of his acquired company becoming more important than his own company. At different points in the book, Zuckerberg refuses to give Instagram resources they badly need and makes them hustle and fight much harder than a company should for helping its own parent. His eye is on Facebook the app, which felt endangered from Instagram- much more than Facebook Inc., the company which gains from however well Instagram does.
The story moves along reasonably fast- generally a sign of great writing and editing. There is always a sense of drama. The celebrities complaining about abuse, the company wanting an iron grip over advertisements (Instagram’s first ad was from Michael Kors, a clear indication of its brand positioning) and the cultural differences between the companies Instagram and Facebook provide superb insight.
My only issue with this book was the portrayal of Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger. Although he has a title of co-founder (and he was), Frier’s depicts him as a back-end product manager at best, mobilising resources from time to time, and fills the role a CTO would in many late stage startups (often hired from outside).
While Systrom was obviously the leader, some more insight into Krieger and what he did, and his frame of mind when he left, would have given a much better sense of closure. If you read the book without knowing who Systrom or Krieger are, you may not guess Krieger is a co-founder. Some of this may well be how it actually panned out, but from a reader’s point of view, some explanation of Krieger’s overall impact in the company, especially towards the end, would have helped.
That aside, this is the first of possibly many books on Instagram. There is a whole separate book to be done only on its cultural impact- why your food is suddenly prettier everywhere irrespective of taste, to how we as a world have become more visual- going from text to photos in all forms of communication. I suspect this will continue to be the definitive Instagram book for many years to come, and has something for everyone. Even outside of corporate politics and big money, the cultural anecdotes here are a delight.
No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram
Publisher: Simon SchusterAvailable on Amazon