No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram (2020) narrates the civil networking service’s ascendance from a Silicon Valley startup to a cultural phenomenon with an ever-present feature of everyday life and an advertising juggernaut.
The book’s author, Bloomberg journalist Sarah Frier, says, “On social media, the average user is scrolling passively, wanting to be entertained and updated on the latest. They are therefore even more susceptible to suggestions by the companies, and by the professional users on a platform who tailor their behavior to what works well on the site.”
Instagram evolved from Burbn, a mobile check-in app. The founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger refocused their app on photo-sharing, which had become a well-liked feature among Burbn’s users. Most cellphone cameras were pretty shoddy then, so Systrom and Krieger implemented filters to make the pictures prettier.
The founders didn’t, however, consider the downside of their innovation—reality-adjusting filters made not only users’ pictures but their lives, by extension, look more appealing. “Instagram’s early popularity was less about the technology and more about the psychology—about how it made people feel. The filters made reality look like art. And then, in cataloging that art, people would start to think about their lives differently, and themselves differently.”
No Filter author Frier shines in analyzing how Instagram rewired society and ushered far-reaching consequences for society, especially on young people’s mental health. Instagram and its ilk have stolen self-esteem and our attention span, leaving us with a needy dependency on strangers’ affirmation for a scripted-reality form of our lives. “The more you give up who you are to be liked by other people, it’s a formula for chipping away at your soul. You become a product of what everyone else wants, and not who you’re supposed to be.” The ability to rework photos to perfection has spread insecurity—even leading to a surge in filter-inspired plastic surgery.
No Filter also fixates on the battle for Instagram’s soul, following its purchase by Facebook for a then-absurd $1 billion, but seemingly a bargain today. There’s considerable corporate drama and cultural clash, but nothing like the co-founder infighting retold in Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter (2013; my summary.) Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg emerges controlling and rather callous. In seeking incessant growth, he continually thwarts the Instagram team. Paranoid that Instagram’s advance could “cannibalize” and replace Facebook in cultural relevance someday, Zuckerberg held them back. As Instagram grew bigger and cooler, Facebook acted “like the big sister that wants to dress you up for the party but does not want you to be prettier than she is.” In 2018, Systrom and Krieger left Facebook.
Recommendation: Quick read No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram (2020) for a compelling founding story and a relevant primer on the sweeping socio-cultural impacts ushered by the heavy use of social media.