Q&A With Sarah Frier, Bloomberg’s New Tech Lead, On Instagram And More

Sri Muppidi
All Raise
Published in
11 min readJun 25, 2021

--

Bloomberg tech reporter Sarah Frier’s award-winning book No Filter gives readers the inside story on Instagram’s rise and its eventual fold into its parent company, Facebook. No Filter has won many accolades, including the 2020 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, and has been named as the “Best Book of the Year” by Fortune, The Financial Times, The Economist, and NPR.

No Filter starts off by chronicling Instagram’s rise. After a few years out of college, Stanford classmates Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched the photo-sharing app in 2010 that took the world by storm. Because cellphone cameras were still rudimentary, Instagram was an instant hit because anyone could make photos beautiful, all with the help of a few filters. Within three months of its launch, Instagram hit 1m users.

As Instagram continued to grow, the co-founders aimed to create a beautiful experience for the app’s users. They were obsessed with curating the feed and creating the right experience, launching Instagram meetups to get intimate user feedback, and favoring aesthetically pleasing accounts.

Two years after the app’s launch, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg purchased Instagram for $1 billion. But Instagram’s meticulous obsession with beautiful things came to a head against Facebook’s obsession with growth at all costs. And it didn’t help that, according to Frier, Zuckerberg was jealous of Instagram’s meteoric growth, anxious that Instagram might cannibalize Facebook. Check out ‘No Filter’ to get a deeper look into the clash between the two companies.

In this conversation, Sierra Ventures Investor and All Raise Contributing Writer Sri Muppidi, speaks to Bloomberg reporter and No Filter author Sarah Frier about her path into technology journalism and Instagram’s evolution over the years.

Why and how did you become a technology reporter?

I’m a journalist because it’s my favorite way to learn. I’m an experiential learner, and I like to talk to people on both sides of things to understand what’s happening. I knew I wanted to become a journalist once I realized that I could have a career where I talk to people, try to understand what’s going on, and then tell other people.

I knew I wanted to become a journalist once I realized that I could have a career where I talk to people, try to understand what’s going on, and then tell other people.

I started in journalism by working for my high school newspaper. I later went to the University of North Carolina and joined the paper right away. During my freshman year of college, our student body president was murdered. Even though I was a freshman, I started covering her case. I realized from that experience that it doesn’t matter if you’re a college student without any established credentials — people still needed to know what’s going on. If you can tell them what’s happening and translate the events to a wider audience, that’s a public service.

I learned a lot from my experience writing for the college newspaper. I learned how to do delicate storytelling, break the news, and keep on top of public records. During college, I also began to take notice of how companies were becoming very powerful. Companies were having a large impact on our society, but they were building in a way that was less transparent. Because of this, I thought that there was an opportunity to become a business journalist and think about questions that fewer people were asking.

I started as an intern at Bloomberg in 2011, and when I started, the questions were about how companies needed to be held accountable to their shareholders and ensure that companies were doing what they said they would be doing. But I started to see that companies were beginning to have an influential impact on our behavior — it’s changing the way we consume information, how we share things, the way we live our lives. I started covering social media in 2013, and it’s now such a different world.

But I started to see that companies were beginning to have an influential impact on our behavior — it’s changing the way we consume information, how we share things, the way we live our lives. I started covering social media in 2013, and it’s now such a different world.

No Filter has been such a hit. What was the transition going from a journalist to writing the book?

I wrote a book because I realized there was so much that I didn’t know about the Instagram story. I felt like I needed to dig and figure out the full context of what was happening to do the story justice.

It wasn’t until a couple of months in that I realized that the Instagram story was much more interesting than I initially thought it was. There was a lot of tension between Instagram and Facebook, and in the process of working on this book, the founders had quit, which made the story even more interesting.

My mentors explained to me that it’s important to break up a major project like a book into many smaller pieces. You need to be really systematic about it. The way to know that you are ready to start writing the book is when you learn 100 things that no one else has published.

I wanted to make sure that anyone who was reading the book would learn a lot, no matter who they were, an employee, a user, a competitor. I tried to talk to at least one person a day and reach out to at least five people a day. Over the months, I built up my list of things that nobody knows.

I wanted to make sure that anyone who was reading the book would learn a lot, no matter who they were, an employee, a user, a competitor.

In your book No Filter, you described how Instagram faced a lot of competition with similar apps in its early days. What made Instagram stand out even as it was getting started?

There are some basic product things that helped.

  1. The Instagram product was so native to mobile — it was simple to use and fast. The founders built it in such a way that everything would load as quickly as possible. This differentiated Instagram because a lot of the problems with other competitors at that time is that photos would take forever to load.
  2. It was also very easy to upload and share photos via Instagram. There were no hyperlinks or other friction points.
  3. Instagram also had more options to be creative. You can upload a square photo, or you can add these different filters.

The founders were also very smart about who they wanted Instagram’s earliest users to be. These beta testers set the tone for what Instagram would be. It was artists, creatives, musicians. They had large followings on Twitter and were people who would create good content, or at least what the founders perceived to be good content.

This influenced everyone else to look at that early content and feel compelled to share their life online as well. One of the most influential of these early users was Jack Dorsey, a huge fan of Instagram and an early investor. He constantly tweeted out his Instagram photos, which were displayed on Twitter, and it really helped spread the word about the app and give it a lot of momentum.

Jack Dorsey was initially a huge fan, but eventually, his relationship with Instagram soured over time. Can you tell me a bit about that? Can you talk about the relationships between these people and the egos behind them?

In my reporting, I was curious about the personalities behind the names and brands. It is an extremely small world, and it’s a place where people are constantly making it up as they go along. Nobody knows what they’re doing, but they all want to be or appear successful. They want to appear as though they’ve made good, smart decisions. That ego is a motivator. That pursuit of prominence as a visionary in Silicon Valley is a motivator.

In my reporting, I was curious about the personalities behind the names and brands. It is an extremely small world, and it’s a place where people are constantly making it up as they go along. Nobody knows what they’re doing, but they all want to be or appear successful.

There’s a difference between friends versus friendship and business, and the lines blurred a bit for Jack Dorsey and Kevin Systrom. When Systrom made a business decision to sell Instagram to Facebook, Dorsey felt betrayed as a friend. At one point, Systrom had deleted all his old tweets, and Dorsey deleted the Instagram app from his phone. These things might feel petty to us because it’s not our legacy at stake. But when these people are making big bets, things are going to be personal.

You mentioned that the founders seeded Instagram with the right users when they initially launched the app. Since then, the app has evolved to what it is now. What has the evolution of the app been like over the years?

Instagram started with filters because the founders wanted users to post photos from our iPhones that look better. Systrom wanted photos to look beautiful and worth remembering without users needing to have a photography background.

With the growth of any social platform, it starts out as a democratizing force, with the same tools being accessible to everyone. But over time, some people become very strategic because they understand how to win. What started as a creative pursuit turned into a way for people to build a personal brand.

You can’t post something on Instagram that ends up on everyone else’s feed, but you can post something that gets a lot of people to start following and commenting. It’s not content that goes viral, but people that get famous. Once people realized that some of their Instagram posts had followings equivalent to blogs or magazines, they began to recognize that they could advertise to their audiences.

It’s not content that goes viral, but people that get famous.

I think that society tends to trivialize the work of an influencer. All of these people who are running Instagram accounts are essentially running miniature media operations with large audiences. They’re constantly creating content for those audiences and coming up with a monetization plan around it. But it’s a lot of work that goes into it, and I don’t think we should trivialize this work.

Facebook had agreed to let Instagram run independently as part of the acquisition deal, but there was increasing tension over the years between the companies’ leadership. In 2018, six years after the acquisition, both the cofounders left. How has Instagram’s product changed now that the founders have left?

The most Facebook thing that’s happened to Instagram is that instead of being a place where you go to discover new things — which was a big goal of the Instagram team — Instagram is showing you more of what you’ve already looked at. It’s becoming more personalized. If you start watching dance videos, you’re going to see mostly dance videos. If you start watching videos of Huskies, you’re going to see more videos of Huskies.

Instagram is just going to feed you exactly what you want to see, which we know ends up giving us a curated reality. If we all have a different reality that we’re living by, it is going to be harder to get consensus on societal issues and how to solve those issues.

Instagram is just going to feed you exactly what you want to see, which we know ends up giving us a curated reality. If we all have a different reality that we’re living by, it is going to be harder to get consensus on societal issues and how to solve those issues.

What do you see for Instagram’s future? Does Zuckerberg want to merge all the apps together? Do you have insight into how he envisions this?

Facebook is increasingly redirecting people from Instagram to Facebook. You’re getting a lot more notifications on Instagram to get users to go to Facebook. Notifications like, why haven’t you logged into Facebook lately? I’ve even gotten notifications on Facebook saying you follow this person on Instagram. Did you know they have a Facebook page?

The way that Mark Zuckerberg thinks about this is that Instagram has reaped the benefits of being part of Facebook for years. So after all that Facebook has given to Instagram, he believes it’s time for Instagram to redirect people to the parent company and make more money for the parent company.

He hopes that eventually, we’ll be able to message each other from any of these platforms. Our identity across Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp, and Messenger will be more fluid. If I was on WhatsApp, I could message you, and you could receive it on Instagram.

The thing is that people have different identities across these platforms. Sometimes people may even have multiple accounts on Instagram, and they may not necessarily want these identities merged.

The thing is that people have different identities across these platforms… and they may not necessarily want these identities merged.

I’m curious — what’s your social media diet? What’s your routine?

I’m obsessed with Twitter because I’m a journalist, and I spend probably multiple hours a day. I have a constant awareness of what’s happening on Twitter because a lot of times news will break there, or I need to share my own stories there.

I use Facebook for various affinity groups, like a group of female writers. I have started to use Instagram a lot to connect with No Filter readers. I’ll hear how they’re thinking about the book and answer questions. I try to be open as possible to receiving feedback from people on Instagram and Twitter. For example, I’ll often post things, like “if you have an opinion on what Facebook is doing here”, or “if you’re an employee, and you need somebody to talk to, reach out”. It’s useful to have a public presence on social media, but it’s very work-related for me.

I’ve tried to do TikTok, and I’ve posted maybe two things. But I’m just a consumer of that.

Any last thoughts?

Our conversation in the industry has really been about the negative consequences of these products from the context of addiction, or how the products are designed to make us scroll. But the next step of that conversation, and what I’m trying to spark with the book, is that it’s not just our in-app behavior that matters, but also how our real-world behavior is influenced by what we want to achieve on the app.

Instagram has affected our real-world behavior — how you plan your wedding, how you plan your travel, how you plan your dating life, where you eat, what products you buy. All of these things are tied to the way that we photograph and present ourselves online. And even if you don’t use Instagram, the things that are being sold to you at stores are designed to be “Instagrammable”. That’s our culture now.

Instagram has affected our real-world behavior — how you plan your wedding, how you plan your travel, how you plan your dating life, where you eat, what products you buy.

I should put a caveat on that — it’s changed with the coronavirus pandemic. We don’t have a lot of beautiful things to share, and life is not optimistic and perfect all the time.

Sri Muppidi is an investor at Sierra Ventures and focuses on early-stage investments in enterprise and fintech. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

--

--