By Susan Elizabeth Shepard

02/15/2019

In Depth





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Anticipation Awaits Instagram Co-Founders’ Next Moves

What does the future hold for Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger?

Six years after the billion-dollar sale of Instagram to Facebook, and a few months after the service hit a billion users, Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left the company last September. The statement released on their departure said they were “ready for [their] next chapter.” Not long after that, Systrom said, “I figure I have a few more Instagrams, timewise, in me,” during a live interview at a Wired magazine event. This was a tantalizing statement, made more so by the pair’s decision to appear together at SXSW for a joint conversation with TechCrunch editor-at-large Josh Constine.

Systrom and Krieger have said that they have been taking time off to unplug with their families and other interests during this post-Instagram period. They have plenty of things to do: Systrom has been a DJ, passed a sommelier exam and taken flying lessons. Since the departure, he has also made several public speaking appearances at industry and media events.

Krieger and his wife, Kaitlyn, founded the Future Justice Fund, a progressive grant-making organization with a focus on criminal justice reform and projects that explore a universal basic income. The couple are also avid art collectors who have been profiled in The New York Times. Both Systrom and Krieger also have young children.

Kevin Systrom

Kevin Systrom

 

They won’t be on break forever, and the pressing question for industry observers — and no small amount of the general public, considering that Instagram is the runaway leader in popular song mentions for social media — will be what the pair will be up to next. The reason for that anticipation is not just Instagram’s success as a company, but the way it achieved it, and the ways in which it differs from other networks. Those differences might provide signs of the pair’s next steps.

Instagram’s origin story combines pivoting, serendipity and astute reading of user habits. Systrom had been working on his location check-in app Burbn, and had brought his fellow Stanford grad Krieger on board, when he realized that users were mostly engaging with Burbn’s photo-sharing aspect. His then-girlfriend, now wife, Nicole, said she wished she could make her photos look better, and the filters that would be the app’s early signature were born.

“Instagram’s origin story combines pivoting, serendipity and astute reading of user habits.”

While the filters were the hook, the ways that Instagram interpreted and responded to how its users engaged with it would set it apart. As social media services try to balance an open-to-all policy with the safety of users, Instagram has been enterprising with its use of tools to moderate comments and judge inappropriate content. That proactive approach has been present from its early days, when admins would manually delete and block trollish comments and repeat offenders.

As the service grew, that became impossible, so the company created ways to automate the process. Ultimately, it was able to give users a way to block comments containing keywords, including emoji, that would signal a potentially upsetting or unwanted response. Having those tools at hand, and having that policy and philosophy in place from the beginning, gave Instagram a head start on handling the kinds of harassment and fraudulent use that Twitter and Facebook have publicly struggled with.

Mike Krieger

Mike Krieger

 

Some of its other tools have been geared towards user privacy, including the ability to archive old posts from public view, share stories with limited groups of friends, send messages that disappear after viewing, and turn off comments for posts. This level of customization allows the rare opportunity for a woman to publicly post a selfie without the risk of unwanted, unsolicited comments on her appearance. It also allows users to create a smaller, more private and more ephemeral experience for themselves, with a great deal of control over how their posts are viewed.

None of that was accidental, which speaks to the founders’ early intentions to make it a nice place to spend time. While it’s impossible to know what a service will become as its users make it their own, it is possible to decide how it should feel to use it. In an interview last year, Krieger said “… it wasn’t that we thought we could fight every single battle, but we were trying to set a tone. I think the tone you set early really matters.”

Systrom has been fairly candid publicly with his personal concerns about how social media works, and how it impacts its users. During an interview at an event hosted by the tech publication The Information, he said that he thought it was unhealthy for platforms to increase ads and notifications to boost earnings. And in a conversation reported by Kara Swisher in The New York Times, he emphasized how little the effects of these platforms are understood, comparing them to gravity before Newton. “There are certain rules that govern it, and we have to make it our priority to understand the rules, or we cannot control it,” Systrom told Swisher.

How Systrom and Krieger plan to proceed next, whether that involves a way to understand the physics of social media or a way to nurture it as a kinder place, is a true billion-dollar question.

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger will take part in an Interactive Keynote Conversation with Josh Constine of TechCrunch at the 2019 SXSW Conference.

SXSW will be held March 8-17, 2019. The Interactive Badge gets you primary access to all SXSW Conference Interactive & Convergence Tracks, as well as secondary access to most Music and Film programming. See you in March!

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