Tech

Instagram's co-founder ignored suggestions to copy Snapchat's best feature before finally relenting

Key Points
  • In the upcoming book "No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram," Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier lays out the case that Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom was actually the main obstacle to be overcome in the social network's decision to rip off rival Snapchat's Stories feature, rather than the mastermind behind the sea-shifting decision. 
  • Throughout "No Filter," Systrom is described as harshly dismissing the idea of a Stories-type feature on numerous occasions. 
  • If anything, Systrom's biggest contribution to the Stories effort was his decision to be upfront with the public about the fact that Instagram had clearly drawn inspiration from its chief rival. 
Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom
Kevin Mazur | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

In August 2016, Instagram rolled out the silver bullet in its growing war against Snapchat. The Facebook-owned app rolled out Stories, a clone of a feature by the same name first introduced by Snap in 2013 that allowed users to share photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours.

Although Instagram Stories arrived late, the product quickly became a key to the social network's top standing among teenagers and young adults. Credit for the decision to roll out the copycat product has always been given to Instagram co-founder and former CEO Kevin Systrom. 

But in her upcoming book "No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram," Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier lays out the case that Systrom was actually the main obstacle to be overcome in the social network's decision to rip off its rival, rather than the mastermind behind the sea-shifting decision. 

Frier's book goes on sale April 14, and it takes a look at the entirety of Instagram's history, from Systrom's laying of the foundation for the app in 2009 through his and fellow co-founder Mike Krieger's decisions to leave the company in 2018.

Systrom did not respond to a request for comment.

I got a chance to read an early copy of "No Filter," and one of the sections that stood out was Chapter 9, "The Snapchat Problem." In this portion of the book, Frier goes through the ins and outs of the war between the two social apps in 2015 and 2016 and what led to the creation of Instagram Stories. 

At that time, Instagram was struggling with a decline in the rate of user posts, which was fueled by social pressure felt among teenage users to only post photos that met the highest bar and could draw a high number of likes, according to "No Filter." In contrast, these same users were ramping up their usage of Snapchat, which allowed them to be silly and real. 

To address these issues, Instagram created a program called Paradigm Shift, which Systrom referred to as the social network's beachhead in its war against Snapchat, according to "No Filter." 

Employees within the Paradigm division wanted the company to roll out an answer to the Snapchat Stories feature, but suggestions for those type of ideas were met with dismissal, according to "No Filter." 

Throughout this chapter of "No Filter," Systrom is described as harshly dismissing the idea of a Stories-type feature on numerous occasions. 

"'Instagram is not for half-eaten sandwiches,' he would tell employees, setting up a contrast to Snapchat's rawness," reads a passage of "No Filter."

Most notably, Systrom shot the idea down when an employee named Alex Li called him and begged for permission to build a Stories product, offering to build the project during his free time with two of his colleagues. 

"'I'm tired of hearing this sh--,' Systrom said. There was already a plan in place. They needed to agree to disagree," reads a passage of "No Filter."

Another employee, John Barnett, nervously made the same case in a meeting with Systrom. Still, the founder rejected the idea. 

"'We will not ever have Stories,' he said. 'We shouldn't -- we can't -- and it doesn't fit with the way people think and share on Instagram,'" reads a passage of "No Filter."

It wasn't until Systrom attended the 2016 Academy Awards that he finally had his come-to-Jesus moment. 

While Systrom was mingling, stars were posting on Instagram more than they ever had. But as he looked at what they were saying, he noticed a trend. A lot of them were using their posts to refer fans to more exclusive behind-the-scenes videos -- on Snapchat.

Krieger had noticed the same thing when he attended the Golden Globes earlier that year...

Krieger and Systrom realized that this was what Li, Barnett, and others had been trying to tell them: Instagram users now had a place to put all the content they would otherwise leave on the cutting room floor. If they didn't make it possible to put that content on Instagram, they might lose those people forever to Snapchat.

You're at a fork in the road, Systrom thought to himself. You can either stay the same because you want to hold on to your idea of Instagram, or you can bet the house.

He decided to bet the house. Systrom was fully aware that if he failed, he could be fired, or ruin everything. But at that point, the only failure that could be certain was if he decided to do nothing.

Systrom followed his realization moment by calling an emergency meeting where he instructed his team to build Stories. Systrom told them he wanted to release the product to all of Instagram's users, and he wanted it ready by the end of the summer. 

To most people in the room, it felt dramatic and novel, a moment where they were inspired by their leader, who was finally willing to take major risks. "It was like being in the room when John F. Kennedy announces you're going to the moon," one executive later recalled. Few people knew the tension behind the decision.

When the product was finally released, Systrom approached Barnett to congratulate him. Systrom's continued rejections had actually prompted Barnett to secretly build a prototype that served as the basis for what became Instagram Stories, according to "No Filter." 

If anything, Systrom's biggest contribution to the Stories effort was his decision to be upfront with the public about the fact that Instagram had clearly drawn inspiration from its chief rival. 

Systrom had told his communications team that he would acknowledge to the press that the Stories format was a Snapchat invention that Instagram had copied, and that was why they had the same name. ("You're going to do WHAT?" Facebook PR head Caryn Marooney exclaimed. Usually Facebook would spin any copied products as a "natural evolution" of what users wanted.)

It was a good instinct because that was how the press evaluated the move anyway. All the major headlines used some version of the word "copy" in them. By not denying it, Systrom took the momentum out of the criticism. He explained that it was just a new form of communication, like email or text messaging, and that just because Snapchat invented it didn't mean that other companies should avoid using the same opportunity.

He held an all-hands meeting for the Instagram staff, explaining how Instagram's Stories managed to be innovative despite the competitive inspiration. Plus, the tension over how to solve the problem had helped everyone deliver a more polished result. Employees came up to him after, thanking him for the inspirational talk.

Systrom may have taken his time realizing the need for Stories, but the decision has proven to be key for Instagram and the rest of Facebook. 

Since Instagram rolled out Stories in 2016, Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp have followed with similar features of their own. In April 2019, Facebook announced that all of these features each count more than 500 million daily active users, far exceeding Snap's total base of 218 million daily active users. 

Systrom might've been stubborn, but he ultimately won his war.

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