On today’s episode, Sarah Frier, author of No Filter: The Inside Story of How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity, and Our Culture (Get on Amazon), joins me to discuss the wild history of Instagram.
Sarah Frier reports on social media companies for Bloomberg News from San Francisco. Her award-winning features and breaking stories have earned her a reputation as an expert on how Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter make business decisions that affect their future and our society. She is a frequent contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek and Bloomberg Television. No Filter is her first book.
Skyler Irvine: Thank you so much for agreeing to meet today!
Sarah Frier: Thanks for having me.
Skyler Irvine: So I’ll be honest. I’ve been spying on your book for a while because it’s a topic that I love and I am currently putting a lot of work into a book that has been re organized and delay it a little bit. And one of the reasons I was really interested in because before we get into your book, what is it like releasing a book in the middle of a pandemic and quarantine?
Sarah Frier: Well, to be fair, I have not released any books, not in a pandemic or quarantine. So yeah, I think the most depressing messages I get are from other authors who were just like heartbroken that I’m not getting to do the traditional tour of it for me. I mean, I don’t know any different, I’ve really enjoyed talking to people finally about this thing that I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. And what’s fun about it. I mean, as fun as anything can be while you’re quarantined is that people from all over the world can tune into the conversation and a lot of events that used to just be able to fill a couple of 100 people can now fill thousands via the magic of the internet. So I mean, I think that that’s the upside, the downside is I really love talking to people about what they think.
Sarah Frier: I that’s one of the ways that I do my reporting when I cover these companies, I’m not trying to just get the company side of things. I’m also trying to see how it affects their users. And I feel like it’s important to do the same with my book. I really want to understand what resonated with people and how they felt about certain conclusions. And so I feel like I’m missing out on some of that conversation. So if you’re listening and you have thoughts, please reach out, I’d love to hear.
Skyler Irvine: Yeah, writing alone is such a lonely experience. And usually this is the time to get out and celebrate being alone by yourself writing. So not be able to do that I imagine Yeah, a lot of authors feel for you, but not knowing the alternative is pretty good. And then kind of like everyone in every business is forcing themselves to capitalize on it as an opportunity saying, I mean, “How many podcasts in virtual meetings are you doing right now?” You’re able to maybe even reach more people because of it. So I like that you’ve turned it into a positive.
Sarah Frier: All around the world. Absolutely. And I think that the other thing is just being able to be supported by other authors right now and support them. I am in this group of women who have books releasing right now. And it’s really tough if you’re a novelist, if you’re a memoirist, if you’re anyone, who’s doing something that is maybe more on the pure business book side, at least the story is one that I think resonates more now, as we have been diving into Instagram and really using Instagram as one of our primary connections to other people during this pandemic. Our usage independence on this product is spiking and the way we use it is really changing. And so maybe it’s more relevant than ever to understand the people behind it and what they’re all about and why this product has it’s tremendous cultural impact.
Skyler Irvine: You’re in a space with a lot of things to talk about, what made you decide Instagram was going to be your book and the book you wanted to write as your first book?
Sarah Frier: I mean, I think the book decision it’s similar to the decision that you make as a journalist about any story. You’re trying to tell a story that hasn’t been told. You’re trying to start a conversation. And with Instagram, I had been spending my entire career, mostly focusing on social media companies. I knew all the drama within Snapchat, within Twitter, within Facebook. I knew all those people, Instagram, if you ask me how it worked in the inside, I would just say, well, I think they’re kind of operating independently with Facebook. I don’t really know. I mean, they got acquired for a billion dollars. Isn’t that the end of the story? And after the 2016 presidential election, when every journalist covering these tech companies was realizing that maybe they were focusing on the wrong thing, that we hadn’t really asked enough questions about Facebook’s societal impact and impact on our behavior.
Sarah Frier: I started thinking about what the other blind spots were and I thought Instagram was a huge one. And so I started looking into it and I realized that the story was rich with characters that people didn’t know. And not only was it an interesting internal story, but the way that we behave, if you look around at a restaurant or at your downtown area or the way people travel, or, it’s changed the way we interact with the real world, not just the way we scroll, not just the way we decide how to spend our time on our phones. So for me, that was a huge opportunity to just break it wide open and figure out what really is the definitive story here and what are we missing?
Skyler Irvine: Something that really jumped out at me while reading the book is you did a really good job of tackling the stages because it’s really easy to understand where Instagram is now. And it wasn’t that long ago when it was started and then bought, but it feels like forever ago. And then going through the stages of like, oh yeah, what was Instagram like when it was just square photos? You forget and how that was an advantage for it. And now it’s evolved and changed. And then we’ve changed to adapt from taking photos of our food, to now traveling across the world, to get in front of an awesome tourist spot to take a photo and how it’s impacted travel and impacted lives. And while you’re writing the story, something that jumped out at me, and I was wondering if you battled with it, but it’s really hard to tell the story of Instagram without it being also a book about Facebook, because Instagram was just an infant when Facebook took it over.
Skyler Irvine: So a good chunk of it is also very heavily influenced by Facebook. Was there ever a moment writing the story, thinking “Maybe this needs to be a book on Facebook where it’s just a big section on Instagram or was it pretty clear that I have to include a lot of the Facebook because it’s such a big impact? But this is just going to be from the perception of Instagram.”
Sarah Frier: Well, I spent probably most of the words I’ve written in my life are about Facebook and so I feel like that story it’s already gotten the Hollywood treatment, it’s already been interrogated by Congress, it’s already something that is part of our cultural awareness, the story of Facebook. And we really just didn’t know as much about Instagram. And so I think Facebook provides a great foil for understanding Instagram, because you learn more about why Instagram, the way it is in contrast with Facebook. Facebook was all about growth and metrics and trying to hack our attention to get us to spend more time on their app. And they would try numerous things to get us to go there. And Instagram was more about appealing to high profile users, about trying to get them to build communities, trying to get people to meet in person and experience things that they would put on their Instagram and to imbue in us a reverence for these visual experiences that could build a profile of ourselves.
Sarah Frier: And they really rejected a lot of what Facebook was trying to teach them. A lot of things that Facebook thought were super obvious, like sending incessant notifications or getting you to log in, again, based on an email they sent you or recommending people you might know based on people you follow. I mean, those were things that Instagram seems sort of cheap and spammy and they were resistant to them. And I think in telling the story of both together, you understand the company within a company and you also understand Facebook, but in a different way than how you… it’s not just like you. I think that our current conversation on Zuckerberg is he’s robotic, he’s an alien. No, he’s got a very interesting personality of trying to dominate. He just really wants to win. And you see that in his relationship with Kevin Systrom and you see that in the decisions he makes at also his company and how he decides how to reward employees. And so I think I learned a lot about the leaders through the contract.
Skyler Irvine: It’s interesting the whole, how to perceive Zuckerberg because the Michael Jordan documentary just was started. And one of the things that stands out with him was the same type of mentality of domination, of never letting up, and never letting them think they have a chance and that’s the edge. And over time, that’s the bigger edge. And then it gets hard to compete with and reading some of the Zuckerberg stuff. It feels the same way where it’s hard to tell what’s the perception of him, of being robotic and how much he just wants you to think that. But then there’s also times where it seems like some of his motions are getting in the way and everything from the beginning was always like a math problem of “Can we put this into an algorithm that will lead to short-term results of more acquisition and more awareness?”
Skyler Irvine: So if I take a photo of someone and tag them, even if they’re not on Facebook, now they’re getting an email saying someone posted a photo of you, getting more people to look on there. And the short term that increases eyeballs and the longterm, it’s really annoying for people that aren’t involved with that. And for someone as smart as he was, it seemed like that never the longterm stuff either was a problem for later, or he never looked at it like a problem. Do you think that’s true? Or do you not really have enough insight into where he sees them going long-term?
Sarah Frier: Oh, don’t worry. I have lots of insight. Here’s the thing about Zuckerberg. The thing that validates all of these decisions is the time we spend on Facebook and the amount of people joining Facebook. It doesn’t matter how you get there. If the results show that more people are logging in and more countries, and spending more of their attention on this platform, that means what you’re doing is right. So it was a very binary. If it was shown in any sort of… every engineer at Facebook is graded on these metrics, if they achieve higher metrics, then what they do can be good for the company and therefore makes Zuckerberg happy. But that’s not how human nature works. If something goes viral and gets a ton of shares, that doesn’t mean that it’s the most high quality content.
Skyler Irvine: Usually it isn’t. Yeah.
Sarah Frier: It usually it isn’t. And so that’s where Instagram comes in, and says, “Well, wait a second,” you shouldn’t be able to do things in a cheap way, because then over time, you’re going to lose trust with people and the way they were able to be so sad, fast in that thinking is they were able to look at Facebook and say, “If we adopt these same tactics, then three, four years down the line, we’ll be like that.” And they were able to say, “Why don’t we try it differently?”
Skyler Irvine: And that was always their philosophy, but even Zuckerberg, it seemed like he could have had it both ways, but almost to hedge his bets where it’s, “Okay, Instagram can live on this way and Facebook will do it this way. And that way we’ll have both.” But he really wanted it all to be Facebook’s way and doing it like our adopt our practices, do it this way. Where do you think he looks at the future of, “Okay, someday, it’s going to be like, you can’t really add more users. The quality experience will have to improve.” Is that something that he is anticipating or is he always going to think, like, there’ll be more ways to get more people’s attention through new products or new sources?
Sarah Frier: Zuckerberg is trying every possible method to add more users to Facebook and increase the strength of people’s Facebook networks. The future of Facebook is this interconnected network borrowing the networks of Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Facebook, and tying them all together behind the scenes so that you can talk to anyone across them. On Facebook he’s trying to pivot to Facebook groups so that people can actually meet people that they don’t know already, because that’s one way to increase your connections and freshen up your Facebook experience. On a broader scale, he is trying to add more people to the internet. He is literally running out of internet users in the world.
Skyler Irvine: He’s giving free internet to people without computers, just to get more people.
Sarah Frier: This company is dramatic and he did, oh, you’re right. He did always preach that Facebook should be the one to make all the bets and disrupt itself if necessary. That Facebook should be willing to kill off things in order to succeed in other areas. Well, when Instagram started succeeding within Facebook, Zuckerberg was not happy with that. And so that’s really, I mean, it was a database decision in his mind because he thought Facebook’s longevity is the most important part of the picture, but maybe it was more of an emotional decision. Maybe it was Zuckerberg saying that he cared about his baby more than he cared about someone else’s baby.
Skyler Irvine: Which is very humanizing, which is goes against the public perception of him. And it would seemed most noticeable when all of a sudden one day it was Instagram buy Facebook and Oculus buy Facebook. And he was using a reverse brand credibility to try to take some of his good brands and rub it on the one that the world didn’t like right now. And I hadn’t really never seen anything like that, or at least anything like that succeed. It’s like if a car company like GM had one car that was exploding, and instead of doubling down on the brands that weren’t exploding, he tried to put the bad brand on all the other ones. And it’s not that extreme, but it was very fascinating. Was there anything that happened, I mean, based on your experience and in your extensive knowledge, anything happened during researching this book and writing this book that surprised you or that you weren’t expecting?
Sarah Frier: Oh, so much. I mean, the way that I put the stories together, I asked by one of my mentors, Brad Stone, “How do you know when you’re done reporting and ready to start writing?” And he told me that “You need to have 100 things that nobody knows. And once you have 100 things from all of your hundreds of interviews, from all of your discoveries of documentation over time, that’s when you can start writing, because then you have a book.” So this book contains a lot of stuff that you won’t find elsewhere. The thing that I was probably most excited about is learning about the behind the scenes mechanization for Instagram creating it’s pull on our culture. And they had a very specific idea around what the best content for Instagram was and how to get there and how to promote it. And they catered to celebrities on an individual basis, and they made some users famous.
Sarah Frier: The Instagram account on Instagram has more followers than any Kardashians, it’s incredibly influential. And learning about those behind the scenes dealings as an Instagram user, who’s been striving in this world to become recognized, to feel like you’re talented. It would be pretty crazy to learn that there is all this happening behind the scenes so that you had no idea that some people just get anointed into success. And I think that the human based editorial strategy is it was very different than Facebook’s because Facebook was more like if people are sharing it, they must like it. If people are commenting on it, they must like it. And Instagram was more about saying definitively, “This is good content, we’re going to promote it.”
Sarah Frier: They have this human way of curating. And what happened was Facebook ended up showing you more of what you had already seen in the past and Instagram ended up showing you things that you didn’t even know you wanted to see that maybe what puts you in an uncomfortable direction. Now I’m following this guy in Germany who puts gigantic bugs on his face. That’s never something I would be seeking out, by the way he got a great deal with Gucci after Instagram promoted him on their account. So they’re king makers. That’s the thing that was really surprising to me
Skyler Irvine: Yeah. It stood out too, how much it adopted, high fashion style like PR and marketing tactics, when it first released these said it was only going to be one brand per day that could market or advertise on the platform when it started out. And there was just so much manual oversight and curation that you couldn’t scale. And it goes completely against everything Facebook stood for, but it seemed like some of those restrictions that they put on themselves is what gave them an advantage over some of the others. Another thing that really stood out is I forgot how neck and neck, Instagram, and Facebook and Twitter all were at one point, where it seems like Facebook just owns everything now. But at one point it was a real battle between Facebook and Twitter and how those just went head to head and some of the things that Instagram did to try to fight off Twitter.
Skyler Irvine: And I remember when I learned this from your book, because I thought it was backwards, but when Instagram made it, so you couldn’t see photos on Twitter, when shared them anymore. I thought Twitter had cut off Instagram, but really it was Instagram was cutting off Twitter saying “You have to click to Instagram to see these photos” and those types of behind the scenes battles and those personal vendettas, the drama behind it, I think is fascinating for most people to have no idea what was going on this whole time. So much seem to have happened in just a short 10 years. Was there anything else behind the scenes that you felt like either you weren’t at liberty to talk about or had not been talked about enough yet?
Sarah Frier: I think the part of that early story that really stuck with me in the book that I hadn’t really dealt into before as a reporter is just the emotional aspect of these leaders’ decision-making. I mean, normally in my job, I am focused on getting people to reveal what’s next, tell me what’s coming up, how it’s going to happen. I want to break news. This book was a very different experience because I was going back to situations that in some cases that I did know that they happened and asking people how they felt and what it was like and how emotional it was. And it’s very relevant because you realize that these men in Silicon Valley, they’re all around the same age, they all went to similar universities. They all were in San Francisco at the same time, competing and collaborating and being friends and getting drunk at the same parties and noodling on the same ideas.
Sarah Frier: And Jack Dorsey’s relationship with Kevin Systrom was particularly fascinating to me because after Kevin Systrom turns down working for Mark Zuckerberg in 2005, back when they were both college students, where I guess Zuckerberg may have just dropped out of Harvard, he goes to be an intern at Odeo, which is the company that later becomes Twitter. And Jack Dorsey is a new employee at Odeo. This is before he’s even invented Twitter. And they started to become friends because they both liked photography and art and lattes and weird, quirky things. They both have this like an artsy vibe. And Jack is, he starts out with Twitter. Twitter is very successful. But Jack isn’t successful as a leader. He gets kicked out in a huge battle with Evan Williams, who was the other co-founder and Kevin Systrom appeals to him and says, “Hey, you have this new money, would you like to invest in my startup?”
Sarah Frier: And Jack had never been asked to invest in anything anymore. It was amazing for him. Then, like someone actually thought that he would be a good angel investor, like, wow. And so we started promoting Instagram everywhere. He started tweeting about it. And as a creator of Twitter, he had a ton of followers. And that’s one that Instagram catches on so well in the very, very earliest days is because Jack is telling everyone about it. And for him to later be turned down when he’s trying to acquire Instagram, it’s just like heartbreaking for him. You shouldn’t be so heartbroken because right now he’s CEO of Twitter. He is incredibly powerful in the world, but the level at which these guys operate, it’s human, it’s emotional, it’s full of all of these motivations that shape the history of the internet that we don’t know about when we’re using this product.
Skyler Irvine: Yeah. For someone who’s not like that involved, I think you referenced to him as like Instagram’s first influencer because it was actively getting people to sign up and had ended up turning into like, when it went to Facebook, that was just a complete slight to him emotionally. And not only was he an angel investor, which was awesome. There’s first investment to do well, but to lose out on something that he was emotionally invested in. It’s very relatable, but it seems like it’s I don’t like kings that are battling over stuff. Because it just seems so far out there in Silicon Valley, a bunch of people that are billionaires or soon to be billionaires that would actually care about some of that stuff. Where are you at as a consumer now? And as someone who has seen behind the scenes? Are you active on social media apps? “I’m writing this book, so I need to be on these.” Are you always on these? How do you view the current landscape of social media?
Sarah Frier: I’m pretty active on social because I need to be, if I am not using these products, I’m not able to find the problems and the trends. And I think that a lot of what I’ve tried to do is get to know people that maybe wouldn’t naturally come talk to me. I put out a lot of calls saying, “Hey, are you using Instagram live right now? Or are you a teen on TikTok?” I want people to tell me about their experience because oftentimes the companies aren’t doing that, they look at the data, but they don’t necessarily look all the time at the human stories. And so, yeah, that’s one of the things that I think is very helpful for my job on social media. Twitter is more for posting about breaking news when it happens. And I think Instagram is more for reaching out to people who probably don’t spend their entire day scrolling through updates on Twitter.
Skyler Irvine: I think something that’s going to be really interesting for people who, how many people don’t know how much data these companies really have on us? And how much Facebook knows about everything you’ve ever done or how much Google knows about every keystroke you’ve ever typed in? And I think that’s going to be really eyeopening for a lot of people. If we continue onto this trend, do you see culture shifting as far as people’s acceptance with social media? I thought it was really fascinating. I think it was Australia just announced that they’re going to start charging, was a Google and Facebook for news and media? So a lot of these changes seem to be coming internationally.
Skyler Irvine: These continue to grow at all costs. Do you see a cultural backlash against some of the social media, whether it’s causing mental health issues or do you think the only way we see a change is if the government steps in with some type of antitrust to slow down growth or to break some of these stuff up as companies like Facebook acquire Oculus to take over the next wave of VR, but they also have WhatsApp, they also have Instagram and their reach is just insurmountable at this point?
Sarah Frier: The way that the companies have and the way that Facebook has gotten to this point is by understanding every bit of our behavior and not just what we’re scrolling through, but how long we linger on a post on a page. All of these things get to fit into their algorithm about how to make the service more personalized. I didn’t say better, personalized. And there’s even a metric called our friend coefficient that denotes how close you are with certain people. All of the data that you put on Instagram is also owned by Facebook, of course, and as they try to combine that data the stuff they know about you from Instagram, the stuff they know about you from Facebook, they have a fuller picture of your full personality. And a lot of people are using Instagram anonymously.
Sarah Frier: WhatsApp for that matter is also owned by Facebook. A lot of people are using WhatsApp anonymously. And so I think there’s some danger with not just accumulating this much data, but then combining it and drawing conclusions about people that they might not want their friends and family, say, if you were a young teen who was out as gay on Instagram, but you’re not friends with your parents on Instagram, you’re not friends with anyone except for your closest friends. And then on Facebook, you’re just trying to be in a different world where you have your teacher, you have your parents. And then they get a people you may know, recommendation on Facebook, directing them to your private Instagram. That’s something that Facebook could already do. And so I think that it’s important for people to understand how these platforms work. Because then we can make informed decisions about how we want to participate.
Sarah Frier: The other thing that I think people need to understand is how these metrics shape us, not just the metrics within Facebook, but the metrics that we get about our relevance and about our contributions, whether they’re valued, the likes, the comments, the shares, the follower count on the top of our Instagram pages. Those are things that tell us if you act this way versus that way you might have better metrics. And then we turn into the Facebook eyes way of looking at the world. We’re starting to measure ourselves in terms of growth, in terms of having a bigger audience, a bigger impact. And that’s not necessarily healthy because look where it led Facebook. So I think that it’s important to understand these mechanisms and then hopefully we can come up with some way to be healthier.
Skyler Irvine: Do you think that’s based on a lot of this confusion and understanding and how many people don’t know how much data there is or understand it like you’ve mentioned? The people in power. It seems like it’s almost above their heads at this point to be able to even grasp how much damage it’s doing or how to even stop it or what’s good or what’s bad. And do you see the type of change being done with government intervention at any point? Is that brought up? Is that a fear of some of these companies?
Sarah Frier: It’s a huge fear that Facebook has, but I don’t think that we’re going to see action from regulators for a long time. Facebook is currently under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, 47 state attorneys general. These investigations take a long time and think about where we are right now with coronavirus, who has time to think about this? In fact, a lot of governments are leaning on Facebook because Facebook has a huge audience and Zuckerberg is using it for public health reasons right now to get the word out about what’s happening with the lockdown, how does social distance, all those things. And so Facebook is really using this as an opportunity to try to right the public perception of the company and try to make people feel like if Zuckerberg is a dictator, he’s a benevolent one.
Sarah Frier: And as this delay continues, the company behind the scenes is just tying these products together. More Zuckerberg is more powerful than ever. There’s been a lot of turnover on the Facebook board. There’s really nobody at the top who challenges him. The people who were a part of acquired companies, the founders of Instagram, the founders of WhatsApp, the founders of Oculus have all left. Chris Cox, who was his head product executive, has left. I mean, this is a time where Zuckerberg is more powerful than ever with a service that is bigger than ever almost 3 billion people use at least one Facebook product.
Yeah. It’s hard to get your mind around just how big it is. And like you said, the coronavirus is making these big companies even bigger. Amazon is getting bigger, Google is getting bigger, Facebook’s definitely getting bigger and makes it a lot harder to make any type of breakup seem feasible. Where do you lay out the future of Instagram today? What’s your best case scenario for them and what’s your worst case scenario for them?
Sarah Frier: Well, right now, Instagram is becoming more Facebook like than ever, there it’s full of notifications and recommendations, it’s full of prompts to actually go log in to Facebook. And so I think that that’s the near term impact that you’ll see if you understand the drama in my book, you’ll know why that’s happening. The best case scenario, I think that what coronavirus has done is it’s made us need these products in a way we didn’t necessarily need them before, we could live without them. Right now on Instagram, it’s been really interesting to see the positive ways that people are using the product, whether it’s going live, if you’re a celebrity or trying to entertain people, whether it’s doing a tutorial, I’ve seen a lot of personal trainers doing tutorials, chefs doing tutorials and how to cook. A lot of people just checking in with each other.
Sarah Frier: There’s more vulnerability on Instagram, which all of the performative things that we’ve been doing for the last few years as Instagram has become more of a yardstick for how relevant we are. All of the traveling for the sake of photographs, going to a restaurant for the sake of photographs, or even making that a big part of our decision about what to buy, where to go, what to eat. Now, we’re all home. And there’s not really that much to brag about. We are just trying to get through and connect. And that requires, I mean, Instagram, although it’s made us so much more conscious than ever of our personal brand, it’s also in that self-consciousness has given us a level of empathy and people don’t want to post anything that will make other people feel bad. So even if you’re having quarantine in a beautiful Upstate New York, Hamptons mansion, maybe don’t-
Skyler Irvine: In bad tasting brag. Yeah.
Sarah Frier: I mean, yeah, people are still bragging about that kind of thing, but it is important.
Skyler Irvine: I agree with you. And I don’t know if it’s an Instagram thing or a cultural thing, because one in seven people have lost their job in some sense in the last month and from six consecutive years of fake it till you make it show success on Instagram, it’s what it’s all about, throw your best self out there. Or we used to equate it to, if you go to a party, you put up the photo album on Facebook, where you put your best photo on Instagram. And that was just how you represent an Instagram. And as, I mean, every time the pendulum always swings one way to the next, we think it’s always going to go in this direction and then culture pivots back the other way. And a lot of the chains are going through, I think you’re right.
Skyler Irvine: These are tools that allow you to show the best of humanity or the worst of humanity. And when humanity is going through some shit for so to speak, it’s nice to highlight the people that are stepping up and showing some of the realism might be an interesting pivot back as the future of Instagram. It really felt like it was trending towards a product of here’s a high fashion magazine slash mall. And this is what the future of Instagram looks like. I don’t know if it’s still going in that way, or if you see it going in another way or all of this pandemic and coronavirus will change it’s direction. What do you see as a worst case scenario for what it could be.
Sarah Frier: Okay. The worst case scenario is also related to the drama I talked about with Facebook, because as far as Facebook started to restrict resources for Instagram.
Skyler Irvine: Yeah. Everyone need to read this book. I mean, it is fascinating to me because it’s own and tiny Instagram has been after being acquired. It just is it’s own little thing with no resources for seven years it seemed like it was crazy.
Sarah Frier: It’s crazy. It’s so crazy. So yeah. Facebook restricts hiring, they don’t let them have head count to deal with some of their problems. Instead, they want them to report to the central Facebook folks who are dealing with Facebook’s problems and convince them to also take on Instagram’s. And this is a platform that’s used by more than 1 billion people with very different issues than Facebook has because on Instagram, you’ve got anonymity, there’s no hyperlinking, things happen in hashtag communities. They don’t go viral. I was talking to Facebook just last week about what their parameters are for deciding what kind of COVID misinformations to take down, one of their top parameters, is it hasn’t gone viral, it’s just it have the potential to reach more people and cause more harm. If it’s going viral, we’ll flag it faster and take it down faster?
Sarah Frier: Well, there’s no virality on inserting because there’s no resharing, instead misinformation and harmful content is festering in hidden hashtags, in influencer accounts that… I use influencer very loose term and highly followed accounts that may have a more damaging purpose. You see opioids for sale on Instagram, you see a lot of bad coronavirus cures coming from the “Wellness community.” You see a lot of damaging stuff. And the fact that Facebook has not invested as intently or as proactively in solving the issues of Instagram. I think it’s a disaster waiting to happen because look what happened when Facebook was blind to it’s own issues for years. Suddenly they had a major reckoning and we haven’t really had that reckoning for Instagram. It’s harder for us as regular users, seeing all of the beautiful things that we see on Instagram to recognize that there was a flip side, that there are other people with a completely different experience.
Skyler Irvine: Yeah, it is interesting how you’re looking at it through the lens of how different they are, but they’re trying to solve the problems through one way. And it definitely doesn’t work across the platforms because of how they’ve been built out. Do you see Instagram becoming more and more of a mirror image of Facebook over the next few years? Now that I guess Zuckerberg has less resistance with the people in charge and has more of an input and can execute some of his ideas a little bit faster or is he more preoccupied with just the growth of Facebook and maybe the next generation where Oculus might be more of it’s future to own that next space rather than expanding today’s social media reach?
Sarah Frier: Well, it’s not an either or Zuckerberg is trying to build a mega network. He’s trying to build a network that basically combines the power of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. It makes it possible for you to jump between them and access more fully than the entire suite of products. And in all of that is currently what you see on the product is a lot of Instagram content is being redirected to Facebook, and Facebook isn’t directing people to Instagram. And the way to think about this is Zuckerberg said that after all of those years of investing in Instagram, giving it the infrastructure to grow, letting it hire from this great engineering talent pool, all of that. Now it’s time for Instagram to give back. So that’s how he sees it. He doesn’t see it as like it all sinister. I mean, he thinks that it’s just on balance. Instagram wouldn’t get where they were today if not for Facebook. And now it’s time and Facebook’s time of need for Instagram to help out and be a part of the “Facebook family.”
We’re running a little bit out of time. I don’t want to keep it too lon because I know you are super busy doing A, your real job and then B, a lot of promotions, which is fantastic. It’s very cool to see you capitalizing on the moment. And having these conversations. I’m wondering with your book ready to come out, were there are certain things that were inside your book that you were expecting to be either a bigger deal or is there anything that has turned into a bigger deal than you were expecting?
Sarah Frier: That’s a good question. I mean, I think that the celebrity stories, behind the scenes of Instagram, making certain people famous and catering to certain people, I thought people would be upset about that because I know how hard a lot of people try. I get messages in my inbox all the time for people that are like, “How do I get verified? How do I grow on Instagram? What do I do? Please help me, Sarah.” And in my answer is always like, first of all, and having a clear vision for what you want to do. But a lot of it is just luck. And a lot of it is Instagram itself deciding who to serve. And if you are in a country that’s not the United States, if you are somebody who does not know an employee, very difficult to get customer service help, very difficult to get attention to your problems and very difficult to grow.
Sarah Frier: And so I think that there’s a whole dark side to that. People buying followers, people trying to hack the system through engagement pods and stuff like that. I think that right now people are just a little bit less thirsty because there’s a whole lot of bigger hurt happening. And I think that it’s just going to change the way we think about growth on Instagram.
Skyler Irvine: Yeah. It’s funny because I’m about how they were, in your story reading about dealing with different spam issues. So they would put a spam notification in their systems and then teams were commenting on posts so fast and rapidly that they were flagged as being bots, but really they were just responding faster than what the algorithm predicted that teams would be able to communicate with. And literally as I’m reading this chapter and going over some of these, I’m going into my own Instagram where I posted a question, which is something Instagram stories allows you to do. And I’m being spammed with a bunch of auto bots that are gaming the system to just comment on random questions right now.
So it’s just so funny because as it’s happening, it’s the same problems over and over again. And knowing that they just don’t have enough resources to handle this problem because it’s not a Facebook problem yet because Facebook stories, isn’t really where Instagram stories is.
Sarah Frier: Right. You’ll see a lot of that. You’ll see a lot of issues on your Instagram that just happened to do with having such big size. And as soon as they solve a problem, one way, for example, they have removed some posts, some hashtags for selling opioids. They’ve gotten a little bit better at computer vision for determining when someone is selling illegal drugs. It’s far from perfect. They still miss a lot. But people are selling drugs and comments. And so there will always be another way that people try to gain the system. And if you’re not thinking about it proactively and you’re just playing whack-a-mole, you’re not going to make a ton of progress.
Do you have any plans anytime soon to get started on another book? Or are you just going to enjoy a book holiday for a little while?
Sarah Frier: There’s a book you think I should write? People should reach out to me? I want to wait until I have something where there’s so much left to be uncovered because I really enjoy that part of this journey. I want to keep looking for business stories that also affect the way we live. And so I’ll keep my eyes open. I haven’t found the winner yet.
Skyler Irvine: This is such a great first book for so many reasons. Because there’s so much to tell about Instagram that you just don’t know yet. And a lot of it, I’m seeing a lot of tweets go viral that are just quotes from your book because people just are unaware of some of the Instagram stuff and you just don’t realize it, but it’s just, yeah, it got shaded a little bit by Facebook and it was able to almost get away with a little bit more without people shining a light on it. Because it was better than Facebook and the perception. And then seeing a lot of these things, it’s just, oh, it’s eye opening for a lot of people.
Skyler Irvine: Being able to capture that on the next book where this touches on Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and culture, and coming out of a recession and capitalizing on mobile devices. And the iPhone being basically the reason this exists at all and none of this happens without it. There’s so much at play here. I want to know as someone who knows that a lot of people are going to want to read this book, where’s the best place to send people. Is there a specific bookstore or is Amazon good or do you have any websites you recommend?
Sarah Frier: So the problem right now with Amazon is they’re deprioritizing bookshop shipments.
Skyler Irvine: Yeah. That’s why I went with the Kindle. Usually I would get a hard cover. I was like, I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get this thing.
Sarah Frier: Here’s the thing. It’s also a moment in our lives to really think about what businesses we want to support because everyone has less money now and they all have more businesses around them in pain. And booksellers are certainly in that category. Every independent bookstore relies on author events, relies on launches like this in order to keep paying their employees, keep the lights on. And so if there’s an independent bookstore that you want to support through a purchase of this book, that would be amazing. There’s also a bookshop.org, which distributes money to independent bookstores through every sale. There’s indiebound.org. So there are a lot of ways to do it that you might actually get your book faster if you do. If not, there’s eBooks, audiobook, audible, all that.
Skyler Irvine: Okay. So before we go, is there any question that I should have asked or that you’re not getting asked enough that you want people to know?
Sarah Frier: I think we covered it, thank you.
Skyler Irvine: Okay. Perfect. Well, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. I really highly recommend this book and it’s definitely something that’s worth rereading it like five years from now because it’s just such a great time capsule of a moment in time because these things are changing so quickly and so rapidly. So I’m really enjoying it. I’ve only got about a chapter left. I didn’t want to spoil the ending, so don’t tell me what happens.
Sarah Frier: Thanks so much, take care.
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