Instagram is on the brink of fundamental change: On Monday night, cofounders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger resigned amid rising tensions with the app’s parent company, Facebook.
“Mike and I are grateful for the last eight years at Instagram and six years with the Facebook team,” Systrom wrote on the company’s website, adding “We’re now ready for our next chapter.” In a statement to The New York Times, Mark Zuckerberg said “I wish them all the best and I’m looking forward to seeing what they build next.”
Polite public statements aside, Systrom and Krieger’s abrupt departures are reportedly due to their frustration over Zuckerberg’s increased day-to-day meddling with the company. When Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion, it was still a relatively straightforward photo-sharing platform that had spent more time perfecting its twee image filters than it had building a data-collection infrastructure. Shortly after Facebook acquired the company, members of its growth team (whose ambitious build-or-die tendencies were detailed in a recent New Yorker story) were installed to turn the app into a more proficient information-collection tool. Today it gathers insights from user profiles, hashtags, likes, geotags, and searches. Now data gleaned from an Instagram profile is essentially interchangeable with data gleaned from a corresponding Facebook profile, and both are used to create targeted advertising.
Even as the two entities became closer behind the scenes, Instagram has maintained a strategic distance from its scandal-ridden parent company. (A survey from The Verge last year found that more than 60 percent of respondents didn’t know Facebook owns Instagram.) After Facebook was implicated in a major data leak involving the political data mining company Cambridge Analytica, analysts looked to Instagram—which has more room for growth and a younger user base—as a savior. Amid the turmoil, some Facebook employees sought to transfer to its less-fraught properties, like Instagram or WhatsApp. All the while, Systrom remained involved in Instagram’s product development, and Krieger ran the company’s engineering team.
As it became clear that Instagram would be an essential asset in Zuckerberg’s goal for market (and maybe world) domination, he became more intimately involved in decision-making. In 2015, Mike Krieger said he was “proud that we don’t have a hamburger menu,” referring to an icon made up of three horizontal lines typically used as an app’s main navigation tool. Today, the app has a hamburger menu. The company copied Snapchat’s Stories feature—a tool that allows people to post disappearing photos and videos to their feed—after Zuckerberg personally requested it, according to Bloomberg. In May, a major executive shake-up put responsibilities for all the major apps under Zuckerberg’s chief of staff, Chris Cox, making it inevitable that they would have less unique identities over time. Systrom and Krieger have also disagreed with Zuckerberg on changes to comments and how posts are shared between the two networks, according to Recode. Facebook recently began reducing Instagram promotion within the Facebook app, significantly winnowing weekly referrals. A recent tweak to Facebook’s photo-sharing tool removed a label that identifies whether it came from Instagram—reportedly a sign to some Instagram employees that Facebook was taking undue credit for engagement on the photo-sharing platform.
Most of the changes pioneered by Zuckerberg have been good for Instagram’s growth. But it was also the blind pursuit of growth that turned Facebook into a disease of a social network that threatens both the fundamentals of personal privacy and integrity of elections around the globe. Given what we know about how Facebook works, the technology it possesses, and what it has done with past acquisitions, here are some things we can probably expect:
More Suggestions to Go to Facebook
There was a time when you could blissfully use Instagram, unaware and unconcerned with the Facebook profile you’d abandoned for it. Facebook has been actively working against that. This summer, the company began testing Instagram push notifications that encouraged users to check out their friends’ photos on Facebook. In the past year, a little red dot at the top of users’ Instagram profile pages has called attention to a “Discover People” feature that trawls for the Instagram handles of phone contacts and Facebook friends, and urges you to follow them. Of course, no one wants to follow these people or look at their photos. There’s a reason people ignore Facebook.
After Instagram’s protectors depart, we should expect more and more red dots. The platforms are already interchangeable when it comes to data, and Zuckerberg is not known for being precious about the personalities or values of online communities. Stories, in particular, are well positioned for cross-posting, especially since Facebook has its own, less-utilized version of them now. Currently, Instagram users must opt in to share them on Facebook. But this, too, could be an area where the company’s recommendations to integrate with its mother platform become more incessant.
Less Messaging Privacy
As you might recall, Facebook bought encrypted messaging company WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014. “You can still count on absolutely no ads interrupting your communication,” cofounder Jan Koum said at the time. “There would have been no partnership between our two companies if we had to compromise on the core principles that will always define our company, our vision and our product.” Earlier this year, both of the founders quit. At the time, The Washington Post reported that their departures were due to disagreements over user privacy, data collection, and concerns that Facebook would weaken WhatsApp encryption to better serve businesses. Though Instagram has hardly been advertised as a secure communication tool, its messaging feature has gained traction in recent years, and it could very well be a target for heavy advertising and data collection. Facebook recently announced it would begin testing autoplay video ads in its Messenger tool, if you’re wondering how far the company is willing to go to exploit one-on-one conversations.
A Feed That Caters to All Ages
If Facebook sees Instagram as an inevitable lifeboat for its users, that means the platform will eventually have to become more accommodating to an older age bracket. And because non–digital natives are frequently wary of posting personal content on a new platform, Instagram could introduce features to encourage easier sharing. The easiest way to do that is introduce a “regramming” button. Last week there were reports that the company was testing such a tool. It has already debuted a similar feature that allows users to reshare Stories.
Deeper (and Sometimes Creepier) Analysis of Images
Over the years, Facebook has built a research branch that has made significant headway in the area of “computer vision,” otherwise known as a machine’s ability to acquire, process, and analyze data in digital images and videos. Because Facebook is very interested in data collection for obvious reasons, it has slowly integrated these technologies onto its platform. (Examples include the platform’s ability to identify a person’s face in a photo and suggest that you tag them, as well as identify specific objects.) Social media analytics platforms like Crimson Hexagon have even argued that marketers should use AI and machine learning to “filter through billions of social images to understand their audience in a more personal way.” It’s not a stretch to imagine that Facebook might eventually integrate these tools into Instagram. At an on-the-record press meeting in June, I asked if the company had ever utilized image-analysis tools on its platform. “It’s hard for me to say definitively whether we’ve used that for learning, or experimentation,” Julian Gutman, the product lead for Instagram Feed, told me. “I don’t know.”
That Instagram didn’t have a clear policy for or against the usage of those tools this summer indicates there are no real barriers to preventing their further integration, aside from public outcry. In general, public outcry has hindered Facebook, but never stopped it. Now we wait and see whether the same will be true for its favorite wunderkind app.