Clicks and baits: The Instagram story

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on August 09, 2020 Published on August 09, 2020

Title : No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram Author : Sarah Frier Publisher : Penguin Random House India Price : ₹799

I was a bit late to the Instagram party. But I must confess it’s the social network that engages me the most. Facebook has become tiresome, Twitter is useful and has its moments, but it’s Instagram with its stunning visual content and gripping video stories that is utterly addictive. It’s the app that is capturing human experiences in new ways, setting trends, and wielding enormous cultural influence among the young.

At the heart of Instagram’s massive appeal that has earned it over a billion members worldwide is the amazing content that its users put out, many of whom have such mastery over the medium that you cannot but help visiting their page or stories for a daily fix. Ordinary people have become celebrities. So have dogs and cats!

Sara Frier’s book No Filter, a meticulously researched story of the social network that captured the world’s imagination and prompted Facebook to buy it, is as absorbing as the photo-sharing app itself.

That’s because Frier, a Bloomberg journalist based in San Francisco. has lovingly brought out the larger picture of the buzzing Silicon Valley ecosystem even as she delves into the origins and rise of Instagram, the impact of Facebook’s acquisition and its internal struggles, the celebrity users, the culture-shaping features, and of course, the money. Instagram not only steadily grew to be the darling of investors, right from the first funding by Andreeseen Horowitz to the mind-blowing $1 billion acquisition by Facebook, but it now generates a quarter of the latter’s revenue. There’s lots on the Facebook acquisition and its ramifications on the app in the book.

The initial chapters where you learn how Kevin Systrom came to found Instagram tinkering with an app called Burbn (inspired by his love of whiskeys and bourbon) and how his paths criss-crossed those of Facebook’s Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey are utterly fascinating. When you read how Systrom first considered interning at Facebook and then decided against it in favour of podcasting start-up Odeo and met up with Jack Dorsey,

it sharply brings home how intertwined Silicon Valley lives are. Zuckerberg comes through as a petulant, paranoid person, while Dorsey with his disdain for Stanford graduates (Systrom is an exception) comes through as a maverick.

And that is the strength of this book. It may be the story of Instagram, but it also provides you a rich texture of detail on the geography of innovation and the people there. The coffee shops of Palo Alto where Stanford graduates and the Valley’s venture capitalists meet up and where Systrom picked up his mobile app making skills really come alive.

Lot of drama

The book is also packed with a lot of drama. The way Systrom gets his initial funding and the condition attached that he has to get a co-founder, the way he homes in on kindred soul and another perfectionist Mike Krieger and then the months of suspense over the latter’s visa status is all stuff of movies. If the origins of Instagram is absorbing, then its rise is every bit as interesting. The pivotal moments in the company, how features like Stories got built (celebrities posting stories on Snapchat was a trigger), how feeds appear on timelines and so on are explained.

The fact that even Apple was forced to design a way for iPhones to capture images in square shapes to fit into Instagram’s square photos shows the impact of the company.

Some of it may appear like too much detailing, especially to those who are not Instagram users.

But there is plenty to interest non-users too and who doesn’t love celebrity anecdotes and gossipy nuggets, which are peppered across the book including one of Zuckerberg’s dog.

For me personally, the socio-cultural influences of Instagram — the way people are going about curating their lives on the platform, arranging their feeds, earning money, how cafés, restaurants, public spaces are creating Insta-worthy spots, the 2016 US elections and the role of social media — that the book details are really interesting.

Although Frier pieces together the story arduously by meeting countless people, there is no denying the skew towards Systrom. It is undeniably his perspective that dominates the book, especially after the Facebook acquisition and the change in priorities.

As Frier points out, an app known for its culture of art and creativity got bogged down suddenly by a culture of measurement with Facebook’s proverbial focus on analytics.

Change in priorities

Like all other social networks, Instagram too got enmeshed in the net of misinformation, trolls and other evils. Obviously priorities had to change. There has also been intense pushback against the overuse of filters to present a glamorised version of everything. Indeed, the new trend on Instagram, as Frier points out, is not to present picture-perfect lives but get more real. Celebrity influencers on the platform have been told to show their vulnerable side and awkward moments.

Frier ends the book on a questioning note and some moral questions on good and bad. After all Systrom repeatedly talks about designing the app as a force for good. But unlike electricity, apps like these cannot be neutral and will become what its human users make of it.

In the turbulent world of social networks, where TikTok is now forcing the older Instagram to take reactive measures, clearly there are many more pages of this story left to be told.

If you are an avid follower of a new genre of books that have deep dived into techno culture — and recently there have been some memorable ones on YouTube, Google, etc., — then this is a valuable addition to that shelf.

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Published on August 09, 2020
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