Sarah Frier's No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram is much more than an internal business drama. It is a deep exploration of how, as Sarah writes, "the decisions inside a social media company—about what users listen to, which products to build, and how to measure success—can dramatically impact the way we live, and who is rewarded in our economy."
Here are our takeaways from our town hall with Sarah, which covered many points including the nuts and bolts of her reporting process, the ripple effects of tech mega-platforms, and the future of Instagram.
I: The Writing Process
On the genesis of the book: After the 2016 presidential election, Sarah started to think more about tech platforms' social implications beyond business. She wrote a feature story on Instagram's role within Facebook in April 2018 (the same week that Zuckerberg testified about Cambridge Analytica) and started to dig deeper, eventually landing a book deal. Just a month after the book deal, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger resigned from Instagram—"and then the book got a lot more interesting."
On Sarah's reporting process: No Filter is full of incredible detail about intimate moments—from Kevin Systrom saving Ashton Kutcher from a fire on a ski trip to the final Instagram acquisition negotiations in Mark Zuckerberg's backyard. Unearthing these, it turns out, was far from straightforward.
"It's very rare for somebody to just offer [detailed anecdotes] when you ask," Sarah said. "The big misconception about journalists is that people call you up anonymously and have a tip for you," she added. "My job would be a lot easier if that was what really happened. But journalism is about building trust with people and trying to understand the whole context of their experience. And that comes from long conversations, multiple conversations."
Sarah relied on both volume and triangulation, reaching out to at least five people daily and checking accounts for consistency across multiple storytellers. No Filter is the output of stories stitched together across hundreds of oral interviews, text messages, emails, and other documents.
On surprises in the book's reception: Sarah, was concerned that people would gloss over Instagram's origin story—but in reality, readers loved it. "A lot of people don't realize how interconnected Silicon Valley is. The fact that Mark Zuckerberg and Kevin Systrom and Jack Dorsey and Travis Kalanick were all part of the same social scene blew people's minds." Despite the drama in the book, she told us that it hadn't received much major blowback (though Taylor Swift's team did make sure Sarah knew that Taylor, in fact, takes her own cat photos.)
On areas for further investigation: "I didn't talk much about people who build their livelihoods on Instagram, who get their accounts banned and have no recourse," Sarah said. How do Instagram's algorithms interface with its content, she asked, particularly given how under-resourced Instagram is as compared with Facebook? (Instagram has such a tight employee-to-user ratio that people with "just" a million followers have had trouble getting through to anyone on the phone.) What are the implications of this relationship?
II: The Past & Future of Instagram and Facebook
On Mark Zuckerberg's product vision & psychology: How do the most successful executives at Facebook convince Mark Zuckerberg to take one action over another? According to Sarah, they rely on the numbers. They frame actions in terms of the things Zuckerberg cares about: either growth or a competitive edge.
As a result of this, Facebook sometimes becomes a mess of copycat functionalities from other apps. "Mark Zuckerberg gets criticized for not having that clear product vision. What do you want Facebook to be?...Are you a groups product? Are you an events product? A news products?" Ultimately, this might not be bad thing—"that's Zuckerberg's winning strategy, and what has worked at Facebook for a long time." (Not all Silicon Valley CEOs think this way, she reminded us. Evan Spiegel, who didn't believe in A/B testing for a while, has been known for to follow through on his product intuitions despite implications for slower growth.)
On new revenue models for Instagram: Instagram is adapting to a general shift away from advertising by offering influencers and businesses new ways to earn money, through live video tips, revenue sharing, and even Instagram Shop.
Instagram Shop is a big shift for a platform that has traditionally enabled subtle selling via influencer endorsements, but Sarah sees it as a huge opportunity. A number of open questions remain: how will Instagram deal with low quality sellers, users with bad experiences, and customer service needs?
On how Instagram's founders grew into their leadership roles: First and foremost, they leaned on each other, learning through mutual discussion and reflection. Kevin Systrom, in particular, became very interested in personal development, reading books, finding mentors, and working with a personal management coach. "He would read a ton of books about management science and assign many of them to his top managers and say 'this month we're reading Peter Thiel' or 'this month we're reading Clayton Christensen,'" Sarah said. He collected mentors like Ray Dalio, who urged him to take time off after Instagram to think about his personal skills and goals.
"[The way he learned] is kind of how Instagram works— you surround yourself with people you admire or look up to," Sarah observed.
III: A Question for Us
"As we think about this social media world that we're building, full of personalized lanes for consuming content, we're all going to end with a different version of truth," Sarah says. "So how do we, as a society, move forward without that collective sense of what is real?"
No Filter is a starting point towards finding an answer. It teaches us that, before we can use products in ways that really serve us, we need to understand the mechanisms and psychology behind our product experiences. If you haven't already, grab a copy of No Filter and read it for yourself!
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