Sarah Frier is the author of the new book No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram and is a tech reporter at Bloomberg.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: Hi guys, welcome to another episode of the Body Clock podcast by Owaves. Today, I’m delighted to have on Sarah Frier, who’s just released a book called No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram. It’s quite well-read at the moment, it’s everywhere, all over social media. Sarah has a background in technology reporting at Bloomberg so we’re very fortunate to have her on. Nice to have you on, Sarah.
Sarah Frier: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: No, of course, I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for a while because I’ve been seeing what you post and it’s very interesting, very relevant to Silicon Valley, but not even Silicon Valley, the wider tech sphere and what’s happening right now in the world.
Sarah Frier: Yeah, I think that more and more of us are spending hours on Instagram and relying on it really as the infrastructure of our lives during this COVID pandemic.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: Instagram is something which has helped so many people stay connected, but not even that, it’s inspired people to find creativity, which you mentioned repeatedly throughout your book, at a time where we aren’t outside, we’re at home, we are living in a digital world. So before we dive into that, what made you write this book? And I mean, it came out at a perfect time where it engulfed the whole story of a Silicon Valley first billion-dollar acquisition by Facebook and I mean Instagram is an app used by everyone, but especially young people.
Sarah Frier: For me, the book was about telling a story that hadn’t been told. I have spent my career digging into the intricacies and the drama within Snapchat, within Facebook, within Twitter and I thought that Instagram was a mystery that usually as reporters, once a company is acquired, that’s the art for a startup. The founding story, 18 months, really fast growth, $1 billion acquisition by Facebook and everyone’s happy and that’s the story. But really, the most interesting part of the Instagram story happens after they joined Facebook and after they’re figuring out. They start so small and they’re figuring out who they are within this other giant company with a tremendously strong culture around growth, around metrics. And Instagram has this growth, this culture around art and around…around sharing moments and visuals. And there’s tension from the start. And I thought that that was…that was something I didn’t realize as a reporter until I started digging into it and once I did, I noticed that there was probably a huge opportunity to tell a bigger story.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: And you definitely did that because being a user myself of these apps, you don’t realize how the features are rolled out and how much goes behind each feature, the competition, looking at other apps and you seem to capture that in such intricate ways with little conversations that are happening between the different stakeholders in Silicon Valley. How did you manage to get those viewpoints or get the understanding of what was going on?
Sarah Frier: I tried to talk to as many people as possible and no interview went unuseful. Every single person I talked to, I asked them who else I should talk to. I built the story out of their thoughts and I went back to my sources and confirmed things and was able to put together this picture of the people behind the product, the people making the decisions based on what they’re trying to achieve in their lives. Everyone just…it turns out everyone just wants to be successful. Everyone wants to be recognized for what they’ve accomplished. Everyone wants to be building something that is noticed and relevant, and that’s not just the people in Silicon Valley, that’s all of us. That’s what we’re trying to do on Instagram and shaping our behavior there to accomplish that in society, and so it all tied together for me in the end.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: What I found also interesting was that these big names we hear all the time on the media, Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin, Jack Dorsey, they were humanized in a way that you saw that you describe the behaviors or feelings or sentiment which almost helped normal people relate as well because that’s something people have in their day-to-day lives–promotions, positive experiences, going on holiday–and you do focus on those things as well as the story of how the app is developing or the team is moving onto Facebook.
Sarah Frier: Right. All of the things that we interact with in the Instagram product are the result of decisions by this team of people who were trying to just do what they thought would work, adhere to a vision that they thought would be successful, and sometimes it works and sometimes it didn’t but what occurred was a very different product than Facebook or Twitter or anything else on the market and…and the way that Instagram is different, the tiny decisions they make in the early part of the story over time compound on each other and end up really changing this platform versus other platforms. So what I mean by that is like, say, on Instagram, you don’t have resharing, you don’t have a way to share another person’s content on your feed. Well, what that means is that your Instagram feed is the purest representation of what you can do and what you’ve seen and who you are. It becomes this ultimate personal branding tool in a way that Twitter isn’t, that Facebook isn’t, and the follower count at the top of the feed becomes your metrics for reaching that relevance that I talked about earlier. So I think that these little decisions, I mean, they could have measured it by something else. They could have measured it by how many conversations you’ve had today, or they could have measured it by like how big your community is in a different way. By doing a follower count it just was an easy idea, but it ended up affecting how we measure ourselves and what we strive for.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: And that’s very important because you seem to outline throughout the book this one way of thinking of being data-centric, growth at all costs that comes across Facebook, very data-centric metrics. And then there’s Instagram, which you’re looking at, subtleties, creativity, being more human, that targeting certain people to get more exposure than others because they think that’s the values of Instagram, and they’re almost at a juxtaposition. Do you think as they integrated, that’s still true today?
Sarah Frier: You’re seeing Instagram become a whole lot more like Facebook, you’re seeing them lean into the metrics, lean into a recommendation, engines and notifications, all these things that felt like you said when the Instagram founders joined they don’t think of these as good. I mean, they think of the way Facebook reacts with users as very spammy and very something that will turn people off and not adhere to the Instagram brand. But over time, as Instagram grew, they became a lot more like…a lot more of that Facebook DNA seeped into their culture, and not only do you see the Facebook-ization of Instagram the product, you see prompts on Instagram that redirect you to Facebook, that make you want to…that ask you to go log in to your Facebook account because a lot of people have used Instagram as an escape from Facebook. That is a strategy that was very grating for a lot of Instagram employees, but it ended up being something that Facebook wanted after all of these years of Instagram being helped by Facebook, whether it was in terms of infrastructure or resources or spam technology or what have you. Suddenly, Facebook thinks that it’s time for them to be paid back.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: And with Instagram copying all these features from, for example, Snapchat, the stories feature, is that something you think we’ll continue seeing to happen?
Sarah Frier: Well, absolutely. I mean, I think right now the big competition for Instagram is TikTok. They’re trying to get us more in tune to video, they’re working on IGTV, but I think that a lot of the engineering resources at the company right now are focused on integrating the products behind the scenes. So, ultimately, Mark Zuckerberg wants to build a bigger network. He wants to have Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook all connected so that you can message anyone in any one of those platforms from wherever you are. And this is a very big idea. And who knows if it’s very necessary. A lot of users have told me, “Why would I need that? I like using Instagram for a different purpose than I use my Facebook, or I like using WhatsApp only for anonymity purposes.” People have different reasons that they use different products, and the thing to remember is that Facebook is all about scale, and Zuckerberg is looking at it in terms of the bigger network that you could reach, and if people have a bigger network to reach, then the product might be more valuable for them.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: So it’s a lot about users. And it was interesting because there were similar apps at the time that started off with Instagram, but Instagram was the one that took off. And do you think the contributing factor, as you’ve described, was it due to this, I think you used the word “cool factor”? What determines that, is it the first, the inner, group of people who start using an app or is that a culture that develops?
Sarah Frier: Well, there are a few reasons that Instagram caught on where other companies didn’t. I mean one of them is just the background of Kevin Systrom. He’s a very artistic, culturally attuned, well-rounded person. He’s not your typical engineer. He’s not your typical hacker. And he wanted to build something that regular people would use. He first started building this app called Burbn, which is just very complicated. It was like everything that you could possibly do on your mobile phone, check into locations, you could comment, you could say where you were going and people might be able to join you there. Nobody wanted to use it long term, and so they went away, they pared it down, they said what problem are we trying to solve? What of the problems on our app is the most compelling? And they decided it was photos, and they decided to do it very simply. And then once it caught on then maybe they could add more things to it.
But initially, Instagram was just about posting photos, and then Kevin realized that he could apply some of what he learned from the photography world, and design filters for those photos, and other apps had filters, Hipstamatic had filters, Piclee had filters, but none of them were made by somebody who had actual experience in photography, and Systrom did and so he did that.
And then the third thing that really mattered to make Instagram catch on was, like you said, the people who got to use it first. And Kevin is very attuned to marketing. He was a business management major at Stanford. He really thinks about what people want to hear and what resonates with them. He’s a people person, popular guy, well-liked guy. And he decided to see the Instagram product with folks who were creatives, artists, musicians and people who had big followings on Twitter. It was like an Instagram campaign. Who has the biggest followers and can we get them to use this new app? And one of the people who had the biggest following on Twitter, Jack Dorsey. Kevin Systrom actually asked if he could be an angel investor, and Dorsey had never been asked by anyone whether he should be able to invest in a company, and so he was very flattered and he said yes, and I think that’s one of the things you were talking about at the beginning of the story, all these people they’re just they’re just human, they’re just trying to succeed, they’re just thinking about what they can do to get there. But all these factors come together to make Instagram extremely alluring. You have this thing suddenly that turns your moment into memories, that makes everything so nostalgic and it’s backed by really cool people.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: And apart from the magic of Instagram, I love how you captured the ups and downs, skills that they had to have such as negotiation, the hiring, the pitfalls, and I’m quite involved in the startup world. And I’ve probably learned a lot more from your book than I’ve learned from reading books which strategized startup strategies because I could in real-time as a story work out, “Oh, that could go wrong, that could go well, that’s what you need to do or what the uncertainties that exist and start a world.” And it’s a very good way of actually learning from a journey across 10 years. So I congratulate you on that. You kept my attention throughout, and I took notes because I was like being someone who works for startups at Owaves, is an app around mental health and calendar planning, and we are looking at students mostly. And Instagram is another app, which mostly you’d say a younger population has more time, so they spend a longer, longer amount of time on that app. So with that, you mentioned mental health. You mentioned how Instagram, I think is quite well known that people can start comparing themselves to other people, how it becomes a bit of a competition and throughout Kevin was trying to minimize that effect. Where do you think we stand at the moment? Do you think Instagram is having an effect on people’s mental health, and is there any competitors who may be able to do it better without having that adverse effect?
Sarah Frier: I think it’s undeniable that Instagram has an impact on our mental health. It goes in two ways, right? You could find your people on Instagram, say you are an embroidery artist and no one in your life at home understands how much you care about embroidery, and then you find all of these people on Instagram who are just as obsessed as you are, and you can find those who understand you and your passion. And that’s probably good for mental health. On the flip side, you have those metrics I talked about. That follower count, the comments, the constant measurement and that’s really I mean, those are native to Instagram, but that’s really a Facebook way of thinking about the world, just like, what are your numbers, and can you get those numbers higher? And we’ve really been trained on that as a society through Instagram in a way that is very unhealthy.
And a lot of people are faking it till they make it, a lot of people never make it. People are spending money on trying to appear successful. And, you know, these filters, the same filters that Kevin added to Instagram of the very early days, trying to make the quality of photos look better because, at the time, iPhones had just terrible photo quality. It was grainy and there was bad lighting. The filters made them look like little artsy and professional. And so people loved it for that. But what it did, is it trained us on presenting our reality as more beautiful and polished than it actually is, and got us to feel like that was, that was how you win at the Internet, is you pretend. And if you don’t understand, if you’re somebody looking at Instagram and thinking, oh my gosh, all these people know how to do their makeup, and I don’t. All of these people know how to be successful, and I don’t. All of these people know how to cook, and I don’t. And you don’t understand the “fake it till you make it” culture. And how many of those people like influencers who buy comments, you can actually buy comments on your photos now! Yeah, you wait until you get to that part of the book. You can actually buy into these metrics. People are joining comment pods on certain topics. So like, say, you know the people who are in a travel pod and so they just agree to all comment on each other’s photos the second they post. That’s why you see a lot of influencers who are really prolific at commenting because that’s another way for them to grow.
So once you understand the mechanics behind the app, through my book or otherwise, you can start to understand how you play into that and how everyone else is playing this game, and release yourself from this mental burden of always trying to pretend or always trying to be perfect or always trying to give people what they want. I do think that, yeah, I think it’s a huge burden, especially for young people who know that the follower count will matter for them. I talked to teens who told me that if you don’t have a passable follower count, you might not get into a sorority or fraternity on campus that you want to get into. If you don’t get into that, you might not get a job. Of course, this is just a lot of it is paranoia, right? It’s not actually true that if you don’t have Instagram followers, you won’t get anywhere in life. But that’s how…that’s what teens are telling themselves. And it’s true that people who do have a big following on Instagram get to slip by the normal gatekeepers. I talked to one teen in Los Angeles, who says that because of her great following, she gets to go into clubs without getting her I.D. checked. Right. It’s completely warped, what we value in our society, in favor of the visual and in favor of the performance, and I think that it’s important to understand the behind the scenes in order to forgive ourselves for not being perfect.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: So do you think it’s important for young people to be on such a platform?
Sarah Frier: It’s just, you know, a lot of people ask me that, like, should I delete Instagram, should I quit Instagram. I mean, it’s kind of unrealistic. It’s the infrastructure of society. It’s like, it’s not even just about friends and communication. It’s also like where you go to see what’s being served at a restaurant that you might like or if you travel. So whenever I travel, I always search for where I should go and a city on Instagram. And I think that, like, it’s too much to ask people to not use Instagram to protect their mental health because they might also miss out on the good things. I think just like being conscious of how it makes you feel. Not using it too much or using it for a purpose. Here’s the thing that I think is the most damaging with social media, when you go to Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, you are going there to just take whatever you’re given. You’re just scrolling through your saying, feed me something interesting, tell me what I should be paying attention to. And if you go there with a purpose, like, I want to see what X and Y people are up to or I want to see if I can catch up on some of the latest skateboarding videos or I want to see certain kittens. Then you can just do that and have done that and then be fulfilled.
I talked to a woman who is one of the top female rock climbers of the world, and that’s how she’s learned to protect her mental health because she gets a lot of body shaming on Instagram. She gets a lot of people telling her that her arms are either too muscular or not muscular enough, even though she’s like, climbing some of the hardest cliff sides in the world. She still gets all these haters who just are constantly trying to bring her down or comment on her in ways that are uncomfortable or ask her out, compliment her in ways that are uncomfortable. So, she just goes, she posts and she sets a limit on it. She doesn’t…she doesn’t try to do that endless scroll and feel inadequate.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: That’s really unfortunate that those kind of implications are there for people who do, who choose Instagram, but as you pointed out, there are a lot of positive sides to it as well. It’s interesting because you mentioned some numbers as well, where I think about 200 million people have about 50K followers, which is a lot of people in the world. And then you’re saying that they’re almost making a living wage or living salary from Instagram. How true is that? Is that…we would be increasing the…it’s becoming a marketing platform, as you’ve outlined in your book, it does give those business opportunities for young people as well.
Sarah Frier: Right. And I think that if you are a young person who has an idea for how to be successful on Instagram, it’s a good hedge against whatever other career path you may be thinking about. I talked to a lot of teens who said that they have a few side accounts, side hustles, just to try it because who knows, maybe it’ll work and you’ll have like a fashion account or you’ll have a meme account that catches on, and with your hard work and content production, then maybe that’s your off option for a career in a bad economy, and great! And then on the flip side, you think about how taxing it is to ride one of these accounts. And, you know, if you’re like the rock climber, you’re getting all of these…all this constant feedback about you and what people think about you. And it can be really challenging.
But I mean, I do think that it can be interesting, so a lot of the people I talked to for my book who were entrepreneurs that had started on Instagram, a lot of women and I was wondering, you know, is it because women are more adept at this kind of content or there’s more? I mean I started to think of, like, what is the bias here? And I think it’s that these people who are in minority demographics, who are in underserved communities or who are women. It’s good to just be recognized for what you’re producing as opposed to all the other things that come along with you trying to pitch something to a venture capitalist, for instance. You can just do it on Instagram and then it will be out there and people can judge you based on your work.
Dr. Sohaib Imitiaz: So, Instagram can become like a real-time resumé.
Sarah Frier: Exactly, and it is that way for a lot of people.
Dr. Sohaib Imitiaz: Discovery, and you’re showcasing your work. I mean, being in entrepreneurship circles, it’s one of the first marketing mediums for most companies now. I mean, it doesn’t really cost anything to start, and people are even showcasing their personalities. And you can be stuck in a small apartment somewhere, but you can have access to so many people around the world, which wasn’t possible previously. I mean, it’s changed the whole physical retail space. And as you’ve also described, cafes and this is interesting how a digital product is shaping our physical world as well.
Sarah Frier: Yeah, absolutely.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: This is kind of scary as well at the same time. So, do you see new apps like there’s a lot of hype this week about Clubhouse and obviously house parties become popular. Do you see any other social media platform that might rival Instagram or even overtake it?
Sarah Frier: I think Instagram is unique in that it has that instance of being just your content. There’s no viral sharing. It’s like a resume, like you said. Obviously, we’ve seen a huge uptick in Tik Tok. We’ve seen a huge uptick in these video apps. And I think there’s always a fine line when you…when you’re dealing with user behavior. It’s very easy for people to become fatigued by something. It’s very easy for users to be fickle. And in every day, they have to think about what’s next. But I mean, I see our world becoming more attuned to Instagram, especially right now as activity is peaking, as we’re all stuck at home. And there is really no other way to go to a concert. There is really no other way to get a workout trainer…like it’s just all on Instagram, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. You know, with influencer economy, which is really much in upheaval right now or with brand advertising. But I think that the way that Instagram has been integrated into our lives, I think it will be around for a while. It takes a very long time for social media to die, even with the impact of Facebook.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: Yeah, you’re right. Disruption takes a long time. And we’ve talked about the influencer economy changing. I guess a lot of companies are cutting their marketing budget at the moment. But, what that means is that obviously sometimes Instagram can be a cheaper way to advertise as well. You can find influencers who are maybe with less followers. You can place like a competitive market almost and you can reach out to people, and that’s never been possible.
Sarah Frier: And they already know, and they already know how to make content in their homes.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: Yeah, exactly.
Sarah Frier: And with all these brand studios closed.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: So it changes things, everyone becomes an independent contractor, almost. It fuels the gig economy, I would say. And being a medical doctor, I’ve seen so many doctors. I mean, Dr. Michaels was the first one who became so big on Instagram. And now a lot of my colleague doctors are trying to do health promotional stuff on Instagram, but also linking healthy products or whatever at the same time.
Sarah Frier: I’m curious what you think about the medical community on Instagram. Like, do you think that it’s… sorry to flip it around on you, but do you think that that’s good, that a lot of doctors are giving advice out and people who pretend to be doctors and aren’t? And sometimes the advice is good, sometimes the advice is not.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: Yeah, it’s interesting because obviously, we have very tough professional rules that we have to abide by.
Sarah Frier: But the line between doctor and wellness…
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: Is…yes, can be blurry. But I think what it is, is that Instagram is where all the eyes are. Like, you talk about attention users. Now, if there’s a professor who’s got an amazing PhD and countless knowledge, sat in a clinic room, watching one patient every 20 minutes is not having that impact. But a doctor on a social platform with thousands of followers can correct misinformation so easily. I mean, you’ve got celebrities who normally people follow for like skincare routines. And these herbal teas that aren’t really evidence-based. So you almost need a doctor to compete with that influencer, and a doctor has to also sometimes be quite visually appealing, go to the gym, try and act cool, engage with that audience. And that’s sometimes criticized, but your competitor almost becomes a celebrity because people listen to celebrities instead of doctors. So, that’s where it’s becoming a bit difficult. But I think doctors are trying to, especially with COVID, there’s a lot of misinformation. I’ve seen a lot of doctors recently, they’re on the platform all the time. So, I think it is important, but you have to be careful as well, because if it becomes the new norm, then I mean, everyone will be an influencer.
Sarah Frier: Isn’t it sad that the doctors have to rally around correcting misinformation?
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: Yes.
Sarah Frier: On these platforms, like shouldn’t they be able to just, like, go help save people?
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: I know, and concentrate on their job? But I’ll be honest, like a lot of doctors I know do find Instagram as a creative outlet. I mean, they like bringing the information out, but I feel like it almost makes them more satisfied in their jobs. I may be wrong talking to everyone here, but I follow a lot of people on Twitter as well, which is a competing platform. And they enjoy that contrast in their jobs between hard, hardcore physical space. They’re doing all the kind of emotionally difficult stuff, the strenuous stuff, and then they’re doing some things that are a bit more creative and fun in their eyes. So for some, it works quite well. And with Owaves, obviously started by a doctor himself, we are mostly kind of planning at looking at students and how we can improve their mental health through planning. So, I mean, Instagram is one of the platforms we always look at for inspiration.
Sarah Frier: Well, I just think that’s all fascinating, and I, I always try to learn more. Obviously, I’m still a reporter at Bloomberg and I’m still trying to think about what the next story is, so I appreciate that.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: No, thank you. I mean, I’ve enjoyed reading your stories and you’ve really had a lot of insight, especially someone who’s keeping up to tech. I mean, you’re the person I would be getting my information from being a doctor and being so involved in technology. So thank you for coming on our podcast, I really appreciate it. And where can all of our listeners follow you?
Sarah Frier: I am at Sarah Frier, S-A-R-A-H, F-R-I-E-R, on Instagram and Twitter. On Twitter, I post a lot of my breaking news. On Instagram, I post a lot about my book, and the book is available anywhere books are sold. But in this pandemic time, I, I would encourage you to get it from if you, if you can, from an independent bookstore or somewhere that supports them because they’re going through a really tough time right now.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: That’s a really sweet message. I personally have to download it on Kindle and audiobook for my Alexa but, you know, because you can multitask while you are listening.
Sarah Frier: Yes! Yes, the audiobook, I think the audiobook’s like even more popular than the hard copy right now, so…
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: You know, the hard copy’s equally because it’s so well-written that you don’t get stuck on one line. You keep reading it quite quickly. So, I mean, I love the book, and I’ve not actually read a book that quickly in a while because it was really engaging. So, thank you for that.
Sarah Frier: Thank you so much.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: Thank you for being on the podcast!
Sarah Frier: Take care.
Dr. Sohaib Imtiaz: You too!
Dr. Haroon Kazem: Thanks for listening to another episode of the Body Clock podcast by Owaves. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a five-star rating on your podcast app. Please also remember to download the free Owaves app on the Apple App Store. Please tell your friends and your family it’s a great tool to help you optimize your life and to effectively plan your day. Thanks, as always, for listening and hope you join us again next time.