Published on 14th April 2020, I finished this book in less than a day; it is a compelling story of the culture-defining app of the decade - Instagram. It was extremely intriguing to see the thought process of every positioning and feature, the rationale for implementing things or not, and the ripple effect it had on society. While I do a quick overview of the book below, I highly recommend this read - especially since I believe Instagram is heavily integrated in most of our lives.
This book tied in many concepts of how the founders were able to successfully grow Instagram into what it is today, applying principles such as the golden circle and the 80/20 principle when it came to prioritizing and shipping features given their constraints. Very relevant if you’re interested in pursuing a career in product management.
It also shed light on the internal politics of a company, and how a company’s personality strongly reflects that of the founders. Zuckerberg’s paranoia of staying at the top led to other feelings and outcomes such as trying to acquire Snapchat and Instagram, and feeling threatened by the growth of Instagram, even though it was a product they now owned.
It started off as a photo-sharing app by Kevin System and Mike Krieger in 2010. Heavily curated content and handpicked communities, the founders of Instagram managed to build up an empire by democratizing social empowerment and statuses. In less than 2 years, it caught Mark Zuckerberg’s attention, who acquired Instagram, with 13 employees at that time, for $1 billion.
While most founders would have retired after a successful acquisition, the Instagram co-founders remained, trying to grow the brand, beauty, and community, despite the various challenges Zuckerberg posed. Facebook’s philosophy was the grow at all costs, optimizing all their metrics and decisions around what would generate more screen time, engagement and growth, Instagram wanted to function independently of the social networking giant even after acquisition. They fought for 3 key values: #1. Community First
All their decisions were centered around preserving a good feeling while using Instagram, and not necessarily a more fast-growing business (unlike Zuckerberg’s goal for Facebook)
#2. Simplicity Matters
Before any new products or features were rolled out, engineers had to think about whether it would solve a specific user problem, and whether making changes were even necessary, lest overcomplicating the app. This was unlike Facebook’s principle of “move fast and break things”, where they valued growth over usefulness and trust.
#3. Inspire Creativity
They wanted to frame the app as an artistic outlet, cherry-picking and training its own users at the start, and highlighting the best of them through an editorial strategy. They focused on genuine and meaningful content, and rejected the idea of self-promotional fakery which we know today as influencers, where many people live off as a full-time career.
At its core, No Filter is a human story that uncovers how the decisions of the company has fundamentally reshaped how we interact with the world around us. It has demonstrated how it has changed the way we eat, shop, travel, and communicate, all while fighting to preserve the 3 values which contributed to their success.
It reveals how Facebook has functioned differently, and achieved dominance on the internet with Zuckerberg’s obsession with growth and quantifying every detail, from the words we typed but didn’t send, posts we hovered over but did not clicker and people’s names we searched but didn’t befriend.
The data has helped distill our complex human emotions and relationships into something easier to process, and eventually, this heavy emphasis on metrics to define relationships has rubbed off on Instagram users alike; counting likes and commenting more frequently for engagement. While Instagram has made us more expressive, but also more self-conscious and performative.
It has created new jobs and revenue streams, as seen from this excerpt from the book about a couple who became travel influencers:
But everything was carefully planned, they explained. Before they go to a country, they research the best spots for photos, looking at local photographers’ Instagrams and coming up with poses that haven’t been done yet. (Previous influencer couples had tried the train too, without going viral). They pick out outfits to complement the scenery. They shoot in the morning and late afternoon, when the lighting is softest. Usually they use a tripod; in the case of the train, Hocke’s brother assisted, with a camera set to take 50 pictures per second. They edit their photos in Adobe Lightroom, picking the best of between 500 and 1,000 shots, removing anything unsightly like trash, shirt wrinkles, and other people, which they learn in Youtube tutorials. As a last step, they apply one of their preset Lightroom filters, which automatically tweak the shots to fit a certain mood, making the colors more saturated. They also sell the filter to the public on Instagram in packages for $25. So their audience can mimic their content if they want to.
An extremely captivating and insightful read into the story of the app that has changed our lives, which many of us may be able to relate to. Sarah Frier, the award-winning journalist and author of the book, examined how Instagram’s dominance has acted as a lens into our society today; highlighting our fraught relationship with technology, our desire for perfection, and the battle within tech for its most valuable commodity: our attention.