Eight years after launching Instagram and six years after selling it to Facebook, Instagram co-founders CEO Kevin Systrom and CTO Mike Krieger are leaving the company, according to The New York Times. The founders apparently did not give a reason for their departure when they informed the company today that they’ll depart in the next few weeks. But after growing the app to 1 billion users, conquering its archrival Snapchat, turning it into a massive advertising business, they may feel they’ve done their duty and are ready to tackle different challenges.
The departure follows fellow Facebook acquisition WhatsApp’s founders leaving under much more grim circumstances. Brian Acton cited Facebook privacy concerns amongst reasons for his departure, tweeting “Delete Facebook” amidst one of its recent scandals. Over the coming days, we’ll investigate whether any similar concerns contributed to the exit of the Instagram founders. Instagram spokespeople did not respond to several requests for comment.
The pair, former Stanford classmates, originally built a social location app Burbn but discovered its photo filters were by far the most popular part of the app. By combining tools to make grainy photos from early smartphone look good with a social feed for sharing them, Instagram became perhaps the world’s most succesful mobile app. Deemed such a threat, Facebook spent $715 million to acquire the startup and its less-than 50 million monthly users.
Supercharged by Facebook’s engineering team, Krieger could finally rest a little after spending years fighting server fires in attempts to manage Instagram’s meteoric growth. Sales, internationalization, anti-spam, and other resources from Facebook let Instagram fuel its growth and sprout an advertising business.
The moment of truth for Instagram came in late 2016 with the launch of Stories, a clone of Snapchat’s trendy ephemeral sharing feature. At the time, Systrom admitted “they deserve all the credit”. But by jamming Stories atop the already-thriving Instagram feed, sorting them to show your best friends first unlike Snapchat, and focusing on performance in developing countries Snap neglected, the copycat soon surpassed the original. Instagram Stories now has 400 million daily users compared to 188 million on Snapchat’s whole app.
During those six years, Instagram also had its share of troubles. Cyberbully became rampant, leading the company to eventually invest heavily in artificial intelligence and human moderators to keep the app clean. Russian military operatives spread misinformation and propaganda on Instagram that reached 20 million Americans, implicating the company in an election interference scandal that will continue through the upcoming mid-term elections.
Facebook had largely allowed Instagram to run independently. Systrom and Zuckerberg worked closely, yet Instagram wasn’t forced to drown its users in cross-promotion for other Facebook products or make worrying privacy decisions.
But in May, Instagram’s beloved VP of Product Kevin Weil moved to Facebook’s new blockchain team and was replaced by former VP of Facebook News Feed Adam Mosseri — a member of Zuckerberg’s inner circle. Chris Daniels, head of Internet.org, was meanwhile moved to oversee WhatsApp. Together, the moves seemed to endanger the independence of the conglomerate’s top acquisitions by appointing Facebook loyalists at the top. Without Systrom and Krieger, Instagram could see its autonomy dwindle. That might in turn endanger its ability to recruity retain talent.
Perhaps the strongest legacy of Systrom and Krieger will be how Instagram changed global culture. It made non-artists feel creative, and let people give friends a window into their world, engendering empathy and friendship.
At the same time, a desperate lust for Likes led many people to manicure their online image while hiding their sorrows and vulnerabilities. Instagram became the premier venue for success theater, where people engender health-harming envy in others by showing off just their most glamorous moments. And when Instagram launched Stories to try to get users to share more than just their life highlights, it ended up normalizing the behavior of interrupting every special moment with their smartphone camera.
Systrom took a stand on the digital well-being issue, saying “We’re building tools that will help the IG community know more about the time they spend on Instagram – any time should be positive and intentional . . . Understanding how time online impacts people is important, and it’s the responsibility of all companies to be honest about this. We want to be part of the solution. I take that responsibility seriously.”
Perhaps Systrom and Krieger’s next project will seek to offset some of the distortions to society caused by their creation.