No Filter is a detailed and balanced account of the birth of Instagram, an app which has changed the social landscape and impacted the world of entertainment, celebrity, travel and business. On the flip side, it’s also had a massive influence on body image issues, social comparison and mental health. Author Sarah Frier offers an exploration into the company’s early days when ambitious young tech pioneers created an app that would spawn a phenomenon. The book outlines Kevin Systrom’s fixation on quality and artistic temperament alongside Mike Krieger’s desire to stay behind the scenes, building exquisite code. Frier builds an impressive profile of the two founders, pieced together from interviews with the founders themselves along with key Silicon Valley players of the time. Systrom and Krieger come across as passionate and creative, prioritising a quality product over gimmicks. The first few chapters detail the evolution of Burbn, an app for planning nights out, to the photo sharing app we know today. It gives insight into the challenges facing the Instagram team early on and showed the hands on approach the small team took when faced with questionable content, spam, bullying on the platform and other obstacles. But they overcame and as the user count continued to climb, the book follows the team as they rise to the ever mounting challenges.
No Filter often times veered into “tech founders as messiahs” territory but Frier offers insightful commentary on Instagram’s effect on the wider world and contextualised each phase of growth, demonstrating just how deeply app features impacted the world and their users. The narrative of the book largely followed the foundation of the company through to the pivotal sale to Facebook but it would have been nice to see more of Frier’s analysis as she effectively skewered the unintended consequences of certain Instagram features such as Facetune, an airbrushing feature available on Instagram. “The market for synthetic skin fillers, to plump up areas with wrinkles, adjust the jawline or make lips fuller, is undergoing a similar expansion, even among teens.” The birth of Instagram was of course a fascinating story and the account of business development in Silicon Valley was eye opening. But we had yet to meet our villain.
Enter Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook and this story’s pantomime bad guy. Some of the most shocking revelations made in this book involve Zuckerberg’s insecurity and furious desire to acquire or “kill” anything that threatens Facebook’s power. From this point on No Filter’s account became compulsive, the Zuckerberg character larger than life. Like The Social Networks portrayal, the Facebook founder comes across as power hungry and frantic, clutching to Facebook’s glory days. “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will” states the employee orientation handbook issued to new joiners at Facebook. Instagram was seeing huge growth and had what Facebook so desperately wanted – the “cool factor”. Facebook had long been polluted with advertising and was churning out new features to try and hook users once again – Memories, Friendship Anniversaries etc. But Instagram was now truly the social platform du jour. No Filter reveals insider detail about what was happening over at Facebook’s HQ in Menlo Park. One striking example was the sign off at the end of staff meetings – a triumphant cheer of “Domination”. A classic David and Goliath tale emerges.
Facebook bought out Instagram, in a record $1billion deal but promising that Krieger and Systrom would retain creative control of the business. The most gripping section of the book detailed the court proceedings for allegations of anti-trust violations. Anti-trust laws were being cited during Facebook’s case – stating that buying Instagram was eliminating competition and creating a monopoly. A quote from US Congressman David Cicilline, opens chapter four, addressed to the Federal Trade Commission stated “I write to urge the Commission to open an immediate investigation into whether Facebook has violated the anti-trust laws….. In hindsight, it is clear that by approving this purchase, the Commission enabled Facebook to swallow up its most significant rival in the social network market.” The Federal Government posed the question “Were Facebook and Instagram directly in competition with each other?” The broader social media landscape seemed to suggest not, as other photo sharing apps peppered app stores the world over. The Commission also took into consideration Facebook’s own attempt at a photo sharing feature, Facebook Camera and saw that this serves an almost identical purpose to the Instagram app. The Instagram team were being left to operate autonomously, and as such the Commission could not see the opportunity Facebook had to build a monopoly. Regulators ruled in favour of Facebook’s acquisition and did not deem it as a violation of anti-trust, given that both Facebook and Instagram’s products are “free”. This shows a grave knowledge gap on the part of the regulators as the first anti-trust laws were developed back in the 1800s, when the nature of business was straightforward. Now, companies operate on the trade of user data, an invaluable commodity but one that the law is playing catch up with. The combined reach of Facebooks almost 3 billion users, along with Instagrams 1 billion, mean that Facebook have direct access to over half the world’s data. Even Chris Hughes, a former Facebook employee has called for the acquisition to be reversed.
The juxtaposition of the values of the Instagram team versus Facebook was fascinating and created a classic underdog story, squeezed and resource-light Instagram versus the behemoth that is Facebook. The Instagram crew favoured quality content and were hesitant to introduce ads. Even when the inevitable advertising happened, the team were at pains to design ad copy which would not interrupt the flow of the feed. Instagram has also escaped relatively unscathed after Facebook was rocked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. No Filter reveals that Russian posts were in fact posted on Instagram too but for whatever reason, the mistrust that surrounded Facebook in the aftermath has not stuck to Instagram. As a separate entity within the wider Facebook family, Instagram has retained an independent presence and vision.
Despite now owning both social giants, Zuckerberg continued to squeeze Instagram, encouraging changes and infuriating the original founders. Eventually, post-buyout, the founders left, leaving their creation in the hands of Adam Mosseri, the new CEO, former head of Facebook’s news feed. Currently Krieger and Systrom have set their sites on new ventures and are building an app to trace coronavirus outbreaks. Instagram is also facing a new competitor in the form of Tik Tok. Could this be Zuckerberg’s new acquisition target? It’s said that Facebook passed up a chance to purchase up to 50% of Musical.ly, the parent company of Tik Tok back in 2016. Will we see a repeat of the Instagram deal in the future? Just recently Facebook has acquired Giphy and it is said Zuckerberg has his eye on Zoom, which has seen mammoth growth due to the Covid lockdown. The problematic Instagram acquisition highlighted the urgent need for reform of these laws. What happens when Facebook is allowed to absorb any potential threat? What does that mean for user experience? And what does that mean for our data?
Frier’s journalistic background made No Filter a compelling read, well researched and offering a balanced appraisal of the social media landscape, Silicon Valley business deals and their effect’s on the wider world.