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Numlock Sunday: Sarah Frier on what's eating Instagram

Numlock Sunday: Sarah Frier on what's eating Instagram

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

This week, I spoke to Sarah Frier, the author of No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram. The past two weeks has revealed a great deal of information about how Instagram and Facebook operate thanks for the most part to a trove of documents published by The Wall Street Journal.

Sarah’s covered the inner workings of Instagram and its tenuous relationship with Facebook for a long time, and with her book now coming out in paperback this week I wanted to talk to her about what we’ve just learned, how Facebook got more powerful in the pandemic, what we’ve always known about Facebook, and how deep into this company’s culture this goes.

Sarah can be found at Bloomberg where she runs the big tech team, she’s on Twitter and the book No Filter is available wherever books are sold.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Sarah you are the author of No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, that this week is coming out in paperback. Can you tell us a little bit about the book?

No Filter
is the first book to give the behind-the-scenes story of how Instagram came to be so powerful, have so much of a hold over our culture, over our economy, over our sense of self. I think that the paperback comes out at a time that the app has just become even more relevant. You would think that an app that was about measuring us socially and sharing our experiences would maybe dwindle during a deadly pandemic that forces us to stay inside, but in fact, when we remained at home, we scrolled more, and we shared more. Some of the in-person stuff we were doing became on Instagram and some of the small businesses that were trying to figure out how to sell stuff with their doors closed shifted to Instagram.

It’s just become an even more relevant story today. I know I'm biased, but with the book, what I try to do is I didn't want to just tell the corporate story. I wanted to tell the story of how those internal decisions affected us on the outside, changed our culture, changed our world. And hopefully people who read it will feel that way.

I really enjoyed the cultural parts. I enjoyed the rise of influencer culture and how kind of cultivated that all was. To your point, that has only gotten more significant in the past year.

There's been a couple of recent revelations about Facebook and Instagram in particular that echo some of the stuff that you wrote about. Do you want to talk a little bit about what the past two or three weeks have been for Facebook and Instagram?

Oh, my goodness. They've had to reckon with some truths here from the Wall Street Journal. They had an incredible leak of documents. They called them the Facebook Files, and they just were probably very painful if you're a Facebook employee because these are the stories that they've tried to tamp down on. When Congressmen and women have asked Facebook, "Is Instagram harmful for teens?" Their response is always, "Oh, the research is mixed." Well, this shows definitively in their own internal research that, yes, they know that it's harmful for teen body image for girls and boys.

The Journal had several parts of the investigation, some of them have to do with Facebook Inc. One really uncovered how the company does not have appropriate staff in countries where it's in languages where it just simply doesn't have people to moderate that content. This is a product used by more than 3 billion people around the world, and when you consider that fact, it's more than half of the world's internet connected population.

These products have just enormous impact and they're all controlled by a single person who doesn't want us to think anything badly about them. And so, they consistently obfuscate the truth. They make sure that there's nothing out there that could be negative for Facebook or Instagram. And in doing so, are totally disingenuous because of course there's stuff that is real awful that is happening on their platforms.

On that note, one thing I really liked about your book, was that it was kind of very personal, describing the relationship between Kevin Systrom and Mark Zuckerberg. And at the time, it can kind of be like, "Oh, is this just drama between two dudes who are very powerful?" But to your point, it is one person who controls this entire ecosystem. Do you want to get into that?

Well, I think it's a huge challenge for Facebook, that they have all the voting power, all of the control, centered in this one person who has not surrounded himself with anyone that will critique him. He just simply isn't trusted anymore. If you're using Facebook, you've been lied to so many times or you've been misled so many times, that it's simply is not a product that you can trust, at least not under Mark Zuckerberg's leadership.

I think that this company has only given him more power over time. I think that in the Instagram story, you'll see that he is working to consolidate power at Facebook, taking more control over the future of Instagram, more control over the future of WhatsApp, and Oculus and integrating that into the core product. And Facebook Inc is not as important as Facebook, the Social Network. I mean, that's really the core of it all. That's his brainchild that he wants to survive.

It’s just incredible how the company is attempting to pretend like it doesn't do anything wrong. I was talking with some colleagues the other day, and we were talking about the fact that Facebook doesn't just come out and say, "Listen, the reason we do it this way is because we're a business and we need to money. And if we did it the way you're saying we should do it, well, that might be better for our users, but we lose a ton of money."


That would be honest.

The tobacco companies did that for years. And it's a viable, straightforward argument in the United States. There is something said for, "I have a fiduciary responsibility to my shareholders to maximize profit, which is why I'm making the decisions that I'm making."

Facebook has never said that, ever.

It's always like, "No, it's

They're saying, "Listen, we have the interests of our users, first and foremost. Privacy is at the foundation of our business. Wellbeing, we are making incredible investments." All of these things, over and over and over become these lines in PR. But ultimately, yeah, Facebook is a business and their main objective is to grow.

Can you get into their growth because even in the past year, it's been substantial since we last chatted?

With the pandemic, there were fewer things that you could do in person, whether that was shopping or going to a concert or hanging out with your friends. Facebook, and especially Instagram, took advantage of that shift and moved a lot of our offline activity online, especially in the case of small businesses. Now they're leaning hard into content creators. I think that they're trying to make this trend exist beyond the pandemic, whenever that may end. That’s the case with all the tech companies. You saw Amazon get more powerful, you saw Google get more powerful, because these companies are now the infrastructure of our society. They're almost as crucial as any of the roads we use. It's just like, this is how we live, is through Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Google, especially in a mode where we've been forced, virtually.

To that end, what you're kind of describing there is getting utility-esque. Right? And we've seen some stuff from the FTC this year. What's kind of been going on, on that end, because it seems like they've been playing a little bit of tennis with the courts?

Yes. So, what you're referring to is a monopoly claim from the FTC that Facebook has just way too much power over our social interactions. And so much so, that it is considered a monopoly. And that monopoly has been enriched by the purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, purchases that the FTC considers to be anti-competitive.

Because if you look at what internal documents show, and if you read, No Filter, of course, you will see that the reason that mark Zuckerberg buys Instagram is to quash a competitor.

Really? The entire reason?

Well, absolutely. I mean, he would rather own it than have someone else own it. He would like for Facebook to be somewhere in mobile. At the time, they didn't have really, a mobile strategy. And one of the things that points to this, there's an anecdote in my book where Instagram comes and joins Facebook HQ. The acquisition was announced for a billion dollars, and was the most anyone ever paid for a mobile app.

And in the first weeks that they're there, the growth team at Facebook says, "I'm sorry, but we really can't help you grow until we find out if you are a threat to sharing on Facebook."


So, they ran a study to see if Instagram was threatening Facebook. They were willing to let it wither, this incredible investment, if it was going to be a problem for Facebook down the road. And then you see that later, when Zuckerberg sees Instagram becoming more popular, really on that ramp to a billion users.

It coincides with this time that we're all scrutinizing Facebook a lot more, after Donald Trump is elected president, the spread of misinformation on Facebook is scrutinized, violent live video, et cetera, et cetera, privacy scandals come about. And Zuckerberg is thinking, "The reason people may not be using Facebook so much is because they have this alternative, that we've been pumping resources into. So, maybe the problem is that we should be directing more attention from Instagram to Facebook."

It’s at the root of a lot of personal difficulties between the founders.

It was jealousy.

Seems like a fascinating way to run a business.

Yeah, because he owns Instagram. Right? He owns this product that's incredibly successful and he doesn't want it to cannibalize. That's the word they use internally. He doesn't want it to cannibalize Facebook.

Again, that sounds a little like buying rival businesses, in order to guarantee that they don't undermine me. That sounds extremely anticompetitive.

Oh, you mean, buying something so that they won't compete with you, is anti-competitive? Yeah.

That's the definition. But, the law is a little squishy on this. If you and I look at this and say, "Okay, is Instagram a part of Facebook strategy to quash competitors?" Of course, it is. They have a version of every competing product. They have reels to compete with TikTok, they have IGTV to compete with YouTube. They have highlights to compete with all sorts of stuff. There's this infrastructure of things. If you break down every product in Instagram, it correlates with something else outside. And Instagram's purpose within Facebook is really to be the product that brings in that audience. And compared to other products at Facebook, they're doing a much better job. That’s about that longevity, that’s about the continued domination of Facebook around the world.

If I may. some of my favorite things in your book were just how initially Facebook was worried about Twitter. And they used Instagram to really kind of poach stuff away from Twitter. And I'm almost kind of wondering is Facebook the quarterback in this situation and they're using Instagram kind of like a lineman? Really just the thing that hits the threats, in order to preserve home base of Facebook?

Yeah, I would say that, that's a pretty good interpretation because when you look at something like reels, do we need reels? Do people need that on Instagram? When Instagram still had its founders and they copied Snapchat stories, Snapchat was a threat for sure, especially among that younger demographic. But there was also a real reason that they needed to do it for their user base because people were incredibly anxious about posting on Instagram. And that anxiety was actually bad for growth. Because if you don't think that your life is worth posting about, you are going to post less. And when you look at Instagram, it's not going to be full of content from your friends who were also all anxious, it's going to be content from celebrities. And then you'll think, "Nobody hangs out here anymore." And the app dies. That was the thesis of why they did Instagram stories, so there would be some lower pressure way to post on Instagram. But when you think about reels, the reason for reels was, "Oh my God, everybody loves TikTok. We need reels." And then, you are Mark Zuckerberg solving a business problem. You're not Instagram solving a user problem.

It seems like TikTok is really giving them a real run for their money. I know that Snapchat took a ding from the adaptation of stories, but is actually kind of still doing decently to this day. But TikTok really seems like it's been the first thing that really has kind of stolen Instagram's thunder, particularly in the past year.

Well, I would say that TikTok, yes, in part, because Facebook is so determined to move in the same direction that TikTok is moving. One of the things that's interesting about Snapchat is they're trying to do things in their own unique way. It's a little quirky and it doesn't necessarily fit with what you expect every social network to be doing.

But Instagram is kind of just hitting back with the same play. And I think that in that sense, you get an app that strays a little bit from its purpose. And when you think about what Instagram's purpose is now, it used to be very clear. There's a place where you go to share the highlights of your life, and make your life appear more beautiful and perfect than it actually is. And discover corners of society that maybe you didn't know about before.

Now, you have reels, you have IGTV, you have regular posts, you have Explore, you have all of these different components of Instagram. You have direct messaging, which is combined with Facebook messenger. You have text posts, you have memes. It's just like, it's everything to everyone.

And I think that that becomes difficult.

That's really interesting. There's one thing that I wanted to talk about from your book that has to do kind of with the recent news, and that has to do with kind of teens using Facebook. A lot of what you cover in the book is just how development happened on the platform for a while, that really came from its user base. Like, teens came up with the idea of making Finstas and they had to find out — why are Finstas a thing?

And then, I guess, I'm kind of curious, as we kind of saw with some of the recent revelations, this isn't really a particularly healthy platform for its users. Can you just expand on some of the stuff that you wrote about in the book when it came to youth users, and then how that kind of reflects on some of the things that we've seen in the past two weeks?

Yeah, I talked a little bit about this, about the intense anxiety for posting on Instagram and why that was bad. But Instagram didn't really look into this, in any formal way until around 2015. And when they did, they heard a lot from teens about how hard it was on them to keep up appearances on Instagram. And teens had all sorts of strategies. Some would just delete their entire grid of photos every month and post a new one, or they would try to find a way to, as you said, have a fake Instagram, which is really their real Instagram. And, of course, they use things like filters for their faces to make themselves appear more attractive, get rid of their acne, whiten their teeth, whatever the case may be.

The way that Instagram learned a lot more about teens is they would have this Thursday teen observation, where they would have a bunch of product people, sometimes including Instagram's CEO, sitting at this table. And there was this one way mirror and the teens are on the other side discussing the new products that Instagram is building. And they often don't know that it's Instagram building them. But all the things that they're saying about it are being observed by this internal team drinking a bottle of wine on a Thursday night.

That's wild.

And that's how the product development works at Facebook. I mean, there's a lot of focus grouping, a lot of observation. The goal isn't like, "Let's make sure this is a product that's healthy for our users.", as much as it's, "Are people going to use this? Is it going to increase their time spent on the platform? Is it going to increase engagement with Instagram? Is it going to improve our retention?" All of those things.

Remind me — I think that some of the things that came out — were there opportunities to install fixes, whether it was on Facebook or Instagram, I don't recall which. But that got shut down because engagement did not go up.

Right. If there is a solution to some wellbeing problem that also dings at engagement, it's really just not going to work. I mean, look what they did, they were going to get rid of likes, and they'll say that they did, but the likes still exist. You can just hide them. And that's the way that they've done a lot of their wellbeing initiatives. For example, if you want to not see all of the comments that are calling you a slut, you just mute the word, slut. Right?

Oh, God.

But that doesn't mean that you're not getting those comments. And if you're being attacked, you kind of want to see it. I think that, that's the problem with likes too. If you're hiding your likes, but you're still getting that score every day on your photos it's like telling someone, "You can have a test, but we're not going to show you the grade, if you don't want to see it." Everyone wants to see what grade they got on the test. It's irresistible.

And it's not just the likes. It's the followers, it's the comments, it's the views on your stories, the order of people who view your story, everything gets obsessive. You can turn your account into a business account and see, "Oh, I have an audience that is more heavily female and concentrated in Brazil. And they look at my profile in between the hours of 4:00 and 6:00 PM most." If you are a young person in the world, you can know that much about what people think about you. It’s not a real measure of how relevant or popular or interesting or exciting your life is. It is a measure of how well you're playing the game.

You’re in charge of big tech coverage at Bloomberg. In the end of September, they had an editorial that basically said, "Instagram is no place for kids." But also, stop me if they canceled this, but Facebook is literally building an Instagram for kids.
[Ed note: the day after we recorded this they did in fact delay it] At a certain point, are they going to have an obligation under any of the online protection acts that we have for children who use the internet? At what point does this become more of a liability for them than anything else?

Well, that is certainly something that everyone in Washington is up in arms about, on both sides of the aisle. We've seen a lot of screaming matches, a lot of strongly worded emails. The question is can you stop them from doing it? I don't really think that you can.

They did roll out Messenger Kids. And that, of course, had a lot of similar concerns and privacy issues. But the product has been relatively successful. We haven't gotten strong numbers, but it does exist and it is used. I think Instagram, it's hard to make an Instagram for kids that doesn't use tons of images of children in it. Right? Instagram is about images.

So, I'm curious to see what that product looks like. The thesis is that kids use Instagram no matter what. So, we want to make a safe space for them. But Instagram hasn't made a very strong effort to root out the under-13 audience on Instagram. They've made a few steps towards better age verification, but it's really easy to find nine year olds hanging out on Instagram and just using it the way we all use it.

It sounds a little bit like what the tobacco industry had to deal with. Again, underage smoking was not considered a very good thing. It happened, absolutely. And they got dinged for not doing enough to stop it. And it wasn't particularly healthy for anyone involved in it.

That, though, is a very highly regulated industry now. And this social media industry, I mean, how do you even regulate it? It's speech by people. If you are the government and you say, "Well, we don't want Facebook to show anyone anti-vaccine misinformation." Well, then you have to define that. It just gets really complicated. In that category, of course, the science has changed over the course of many months.

It's a tricky problem to solve. What I hope happens when people read the book is they understand the infrastructure of these products, the motivations of these executives, the grow-at-all-costs mentality at Facebook, and are able to make healthier decisions for themselves, informed decisions about how they want to use the products with some level of intention. And maybe that's a way to help it be healthier.

All right. So, to make an informed decision, you have got to be informed and the book is
No Filter. It won a bunch of best book awards last year, right? Like NPR, the Economist, I think McKinsey, right

It was the Financial Times McKinsey Business Book of the Year, which was very exciting!

Very cool! And it's out in paperback now, and folks can get it anywhere.

Anywhere. Anywhere books are sold, eBooks, audio books, it's there,

Sick. And then where can folks find you?

I am on Twitter and Instagram and everywhere that people are on the internet these days.

If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.

Thank you so much for becoming a paid subscriber!

Send links to me on Twitter at @WaltHickey or email me with numbers, tips, or feedback at

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Numlock News is a daily morning newsletter that pops out fascinating numbers buried in the news, highlighting awesome stories you're missing out on. Every Sunday, Walt Hickey interviews someone cool. Sometimes he records it in quality befitting a podcast.