Zuckerberg’s death grip on Instagram

Alongside the continued “will he, won’t he” news about both Rod Rosenstein and Brett Kavanaugh, the hot topic in the world of digital media on Tuesday was the sudden departure of Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. We know the departure was sudden because Facebook—which bought the image-sharing startup in 2012 for $1 billion—seemed to be completely unprepared for the news, which was broken by Mike Isaac of The New York Times. Eventually, the social network put out a generic statement about how the co-founders were “extraordinary product leaders”—a classic backhanded compliment that managed to completely downplay how crucial Instagram has been to Facebook’s success over the past few years.

For much of that time, Systrom in particular has played the role of a loyal Facebook soldier, pushing the photo-sharing service in new directions that have dramatically increased its reach—most notably by shamelessly copying the popular “Stories” format invented by competitor Snapchat in almost every detail, sucking the oxygen out of Snap’s service at a crucial moment for the company. Some analysts think Instagram, if it was a standalone service, might be worth as much as $100 billion, and it continues to grow both as a social utility and revenue-generating machine.

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So why leave now? The consensus in tech-land is that the co-founders got fed up with Zuckerberg’s “bear hug,” as some have called it—that is, the Facebook CEO’s increasing desire to monkey around with Instagram and absorb it into the rest of the Facebook machinery. It may seem like a small thing, but some noticed Facebook is no longer including Instagram’s name next to an image when it is shared to the larger social network. Then there were rumors the company might add a “re-gram” or sharing feature to allow users to re-post images from other accounts—something Systrom and Krieger said they would never do, because it would mean less authentic personal sharing (Instagram maintains it is not planning such a feature). Could either of these have been the last straw? No one is saying.

Obviously, Mark Zuckerberg bought the company, and he’s entitled to do whatever he wants with it, as tech analyst Ben Thompson has pointed out in his Stratechery newsletter. The terms of the original Facebook/Instagram deal said the latter would remain an independent entity, and it did for some time. But as the pressure for growth continues, Facebook has looked increasingly to more private networks like Instagram and WhatsApp to carry the bulk of that burden (although the fact that WhatsApp is encrypted makes it exponentially more difficult to crack down on misinformation, as users in India have found out).

Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram was an eye-opening deal in 2012—in the days before the $22-billion purchase of WhatsApp, it was still shocking to see Facebook pay $1 billion for a company that was less than two years old, with only 13 employees and a paltry 30 million users (the acquisition would be worth about $4 billion now, since the shares used to pay for it have continued to climb in value). But as Snapchat soared in popularity, it quickly became obvious that buying Instagram was one of the best things Facebook ever did. Now it remains to be seen whether the social network will be able to build on that success without two of the key figures who helped make it happen in the first place.

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Here’s more about Instagram and its relationship with Facebook:

  • Inauthentic behavior: Although Instagram hasn’t played a major role in the misinformation campaigns that have caused so much trouble for Facebook and WhatsApp, it hasn’t been totally immune. In August, Facebook said it took down 76 accounts for what it called “inauthentic behavior,” similar to the activity it noticed in accounts set up by Russia’s Internet Research Agency during the 2016 election.
  • Also, neo-Nazis and drugs: The same kind of marketing that works for innocuous brands also works for more nefarious products, unfortunately: HuffPost found neo-Nazi groups were using Instagram accounts to sell clothing with white power slogans like “White baby—the future of our race” for pregnant mothers, and The Washington Post says the network is also being used sell illicit drugs.
  • Celebrities go direct: A recent New York Times feature said the widespread use of Instagram by celebrities has helped kill the traditional celebrity feature, a staple of consumer magazines for decades. The Times says this is “a disservice to fans, who miss out on what happens when someone in the room is pushing back, not merely taking dictation.”
  • Uncool uncle: Facebook’s desire to control Instagram is a function of the main network’s decline in popularity, especially with younger users. A recent study released by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism asked people to say which words they associated with different networks: Facebook got “bipolar,” and “uncool uncle,” while Instagram got “glamorous,” and “open-minded” (but also “stalker”).
  • A summer job: Instagram has become such a central part of the way brands do their marketing that young people are spending their summers posting sponsored content to the social network and making thousands of dollars doing it, according to a recent feature in The Atlantic. Mary, a 14-year-old from California, said it’s “pretty much the easiest way, without becoming famous on the internet, to make money.”

 

Other notable stories:

  • An investigation by BuzzFeed found that a recommendation feature built into Apple’s Safari browser was promoting debunked conspiracy theories, shock videos, and misinformation as part of the “Siri Suggested” search results, in much the same way that YouTube has been accused of doing with its recommended videos.
  • The Atlantic Council, an international think tank based in Washington, has produced a multimedia report called Breaking Ghouta, which tells the story of how the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad attacked and took control of the eastern region of the country, committing what many believe to be war crimes in the process.
  • A year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Pete Vernon writes for CJR about how some reporters dedicated themselves to writing about the disaster, long after most mainstream journalists had turned away to cover other stories. “I had never seen people so moved by journalism,” one reporter tells Vernon, about being greeted by Puerto Ricans overjoyed at having their stories told to the world.
  • As the number of reporters covering state politics has declined, three news organizations in Oregon have formed a partnership to cover the state capital, including a new online outlet called the Salem Reporter, as well as the Pamplin Media Group (publisher of the Portland Tribune) and EO Media Group, publisher of the East Oregonian and other community newspapers.
  • Media analyst Ken Doctor says The Washington Post has larger ambitions for its content-management system, known as Arc, which many other publications also now use to publish. Doctor says the company wants to add an advertising network to the system, as well as a way of managing paywall access.
  • A new report from the Canadian Public Policy Forum looked at the decline in local news coverage in 20 small and mid-sized Canadian communities, and found that “the number and depth of newspaper articles about civic affairs declined sharply between 2008 and 2017, leaving citizens less informed about their democratic institutions.”
  • A British study looked at what has happened since The Independent newspaper went digital only in 2016, and found that while its readership didn’t decline after the change, the total time spent with the paper fell by more than 80 percent. The study said this “suggests that when newspapers go online-only they may move back into the black, but they also forfeit much of the attention they formerly enjoyed.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.