Kevin Systrom, a 26-year-old Stanford graduate who had recently left Google to launch his own tech start-up, was walking along a Mexican beach with his girlfriend in 2010 when she delivered some difficult news. She just couldn’t see herself ever using “Codename”, the photo-sharing app that he was working on, because her smartphone took such bad photos. A mutual friend of theirs somehow took great shots with his phone, despite its poor-quality camera, but hers always looked rubbish. He simply uses a digital filter to make his photographs look better, Systrom explained.
“Well, you guys should probably have filters too,” his girlfriend, Nicole Schuetz, said. Codename became Instagram, and on 16 July 2010 Systrom uploaded the first photo, a sandy-coloured dog and Schuetz’s sandalled foot snapped outside a taco stand in Mexico, which he then automatically enhanced with the app’s X-Pro II filter.
With the right filter, everyone can feel like a professional photographer. With the right framing, for a moment, everyone’s life can look beautiful or like some kind of art. When it first launched in 2010 Instagram only allowed users to filter and share photos, in a uniform 306-pixel square, to like one another’s photos, and to follow each other.
The app made it easy to turn your reality into something aesthetically pleasing and worth offering up for the approval of strangers. Receiving an online “like” delivers a feel-good dopamine hit, and scrolling through other people’s photos can feel intimate and voyeuristic, as though you’re outside, peering into row upon row of illuminated living room windows – only everyone’s a bit more attractive than average, and the bookshelves are neatly arranged, and no one’s baby is screaming. By June 2018, Instagram had over a billion active users and even people who have never signed up to the website would find their lives had been shaped by it, in ways that are at once monumental and sometimes hard to identify.
No Filter, a pacy, behind-the-scenes account of Instagram’s rise by the Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier, is a fascinating business story – but also much more than that. It offers a disquieting account of how decisions made by Silicon Valley executives, about new products or algorithms or ad sales, have had huge and often unintended consequences for our everyday lives – our self-conception, the things we value, our ideas of beauty, the people we admire, the food we eat, the way we spend our time.
“Instagram was one of the first apps to fully exploit our relationship with our phones, compelling us to experience life through a camera for the reward of digital validation,” Frier writes. It has woven itself into our language – the hunt for the “Instagrammable”, the consumption of “food porn” – and into how we conduct and document our lives, all those photographed lunches and cliff-edge selfies and holidays saved for, and sought out, because they look good.
The app has helped create a transcultural hipster aesthetic: avocado toast and cappuccino art, fiddle-leaf figs, exposed brick, reclaimed wood, industrial lighting. Instagram has created new real-life hierarchies. It’s “a celebrity-making machine the likes of which the world has never seen”, Frier observes. Over six million Instagram users have a million or more followers. The five Kardashian sisters, once primarily reality TV stars, have a combined reach of over half a billion Instagram followers. Kim Kardashian West is believed to make around $1m for a single Instagram post.
Instagram has become a measure of cultural capital and even those with small followings feel pressure to compete, and build lives that look good online. Systrom, an aesthete and keen amateur photographer, and his co-founder Mike Krieger, a Brazilian software engineer he had met at Stanford, believed it could be a place for creative people to discover new ideas, but instead it became a tool for mass unhappiness. A 2017 study by the Royal Society for Public Health named Instagram the worst app for mental health because of how anxious and unhappy it makes young people.
One of the biggest turning points in Instagram’s history occurred in 2012, when Facebook bought the company for $1bn, its record acquisition at the time. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, promised Systrom independence, but in reality Systrom had to fight for it. The cultural differences between the two social media giants were stark, and Zuckerberg does not come off well in Frier’s reporting. She describes Facebook as obsessed with growth to the detriment of anything else. For all of its high-minded mission statements about connecting people, the company’s decisions are driven solely by the desire for as many people as possible to use Facebook for as long as possible, so that the company can package and sell users’ digital attention to advertisers. These decisions have reshaped American politics in various damaging ways, disseminating misinformation and deepening partisan divides. But reading No Filter I felt even more depressed contemplating how Facebook has reshaped our personal lives.
Frier describes how in 2016 the company’s executives expressed concern that while users spent on average 45 minutes a day on Facebook, they tended to do so in less than 90 second chunks. Consider for a moment how much time this means a person spends on Facebook: 45 minutes a day amounts to 274 hours a year, or over 11 24-hour shifts spent scrolling and clicking. In her memoir When in French: Love in a Second Language, Lauren Collins, a writer at the New Yorker, quotes her French husband as saying “talking to you in English is like touching you with gloves”. How, then, to describe the remoteness of a conversation that is mediated not by a foreign language, but by the architecture of a website. Here, emotions are picked from an emoji menu, our attention is directed by algorithms we cannot begin to understand and our digital vocabulary – the likes and birthday reminders and status updates – has evolved not as a means to better understand one another but as the most effective way to donate our personal information to a parasitic social media giant.
Instagram’s users spend almost as much time on the website as Facebook’s do, but Frier reports that the company’s growth was driven by a different logic. Systrom and Krieger valued quality over quantity, and looked for ways to influence the content that was shared on the app: encouraging posts that were beautiful or inspiring and discouraging naked self-promotion. The first users were hand-picked to be arty, interesting and influential. Creative types were encouraged through invitations to in-person “InstaMeets” or by being promoted on the main @instagram account and suggested user lists. Instagram staff courted celebrities, who were offered personal support with how best to use the site. The website was governed by a “millennial optimism”, a desire to create an online haven for creativity and curiosity. We all know now things didn’t go to plan.
For a start, staff at Instagram exercised remarkable power over users’ lives. Frier tells the story of Courtney Dasher, whose photos of her adopted chihuahua-dachshund mix called Tuna – an awkward-looking dog with an overbite and an expressive, oddly human face – caught the attention of a staffer who compiled the Weekly Fluff, a list of recommended animal-related accounts.
When the staffer promoted @tunameltsmyheart the account received tens of thousands of new followers overnight, and not long after Dasher was able to give up her job to devote herself full-time to managing and monetising Tuna’s fame. Instagram created the influencer phenomenon: online taste-makers who turn their own lives (or their pet’s or children’s lives) into a commodity. Instagram also, Frier points out, became the ultimate influencer itself. The company acts as a hidden force, shaping our digital landscape, our preferences, our horizons. When it makes unilateral changes to the app, such as when it began displaying posts algorithmically rather than chronologically, it kills countless careers and often creates a new influencer elite, rewarding celebrities who have a personal link to Instagram or those quickest to grasp the new rules of the game.
There’s nothing inherently nefarious about influence. No one is entirely autonomous. We can be influenced for the better. What might be more suspect is that Instagram has helped monetise influence. It has provided a new way for brands to quantify it – the likes, the follows, the comments, the link-clicks – and for influencers to sell it. And, more than that, it has encouraged people to conceal these financial incentives. Frier notes that at LeWeb, a tech conference in France, Systrom described how the most successful brands on Instagram are “the ones where it comes across as honest and genuine”. In other words, Systrom was happy for people to sell goods on Instagram as long as it didn’t look like they were doing so. He preferred a contrived kind of authenticity to obvious self-promotion. It was only in 2016 that the US Federal Trade Commission began demanding that influencers make clear when their posts are, in fact, advertising – but the rules are poorly enforced. Instagram’s early employees wanted to make something akin to an online art gallery, but later realised they had created “a mall”, Frier writes.
In 2018, just months after Instagram achieved a billion users, its founders quit. They were frustrated by Zuckerberg’s megalomania. So threatened did Zuckerberg feel by Instagram’s success, that he refused to provide the company with resources it needed to address huge problems, such as the number of people using Instagram to sell drugs. Systrom and Krieger’s departure enabled Zuckerberg to bring about many of the changes the site had long resisted: there would be more ads and more push notifications, and the drive to boost revenue would trump concerns over the quality of what was posted online. “If Facebook’s history is any guide, the real cost of the acquisition will fall on Instagram’s users,” Frier concludes.
Frier is a skilled reporter and an astute and sensitive cultural observer. No Filter is a vital read for anyone seeking to understand the incredible power Silicon Valley executives exercise over us, and the opaque, unpredictable and undemocratic mechanisms by which they do so. It offers a useful framework for thinking about how the tech we use changes us, and for beginning to understand what we really want from the websites we consult so frequently and so unthinkingly.
If anything, I feel more pessimistic about the current state of affairs than she does. At one point she describes how Instagram encourages people to pay attention to the world around them. “The filters and square shape made all the photographs on Instagram feel immediately nostalgic, like old Polaroids, transforming moments into memories, giving people the opportunity to look back on what they’d done with their day and feel like it was beautiful,” she writes.
You could, indeed, think of Instagram as a way to honour our quotidian lives. It tells us that everyone’s life is worthy of display. It reminds us that the world is worth noticing: urging us to keep an eye out for perfect sunsets and autumn leaves arranged, just so, on grey pavements, and hilariously juxtapositioned street signs. But at the same time, it cheapens and flattens subjective experiences, making users feel as though moments are only valuable if they can be shared online and are met with sufficient approval from strangers. The climb up a mountain may not feel worth it if you can’t get a good summit shot. One Instagram account, which has over 100,000 followers, called @youdidnoteatthat, documents examples of toned, glamorous Instagrammers posing with giant ice-creams or biting into greasy pizza slices that, well, they obviously did not eat. How mind-bending it is that one tried-and-tested way to look good online is to buy good-looking food that you cannot eat, for fear of looking less good online. Or, perhaps, that’s only an extreme version of the kind of calculation we perform all the time as we flit between considering our digital and off-screen lives.
Reading No Filter I was reminded of a 2019 New York Magazine cover story, “What Instagram Did to Me”, by Tavi Gevinson, a 24-year-old writer and actor who was catapulted to fame as a pre-teen fashion blogger. “Somewhere along the line, I think I came to see my shareable self as the authentic one and buried any tendencies that might threaten her likeability so deep down I forgot they even existed,” she writes. “I can try to imagine an alternate universe where I’ve always roamed free and Instagramless in pastures untouched by the algorithm. But I can’t imagine who that person is inside.”
Gevinson’s relationship with social media may be more intense than most, but I’m not sure many people who have grown up with, and on, sites such as Instagram could conceive clearly of who they would be, or who they may have become, without them.
A handful of Silicon Valley executives have exerted an almost inconceivable degree of influence over our culture, our identities and our psychology. They have little concern for us – by which, I mean, the average user. And still we dutifully spend great chunks of our limited time on Earth scrolling and clicking and offering up our digital lives to be repackaged and sold, without ever fully understanding how or why we got here.
Random House Business, 352pp, £20
This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation