The departure of Instagram's founders is symptomatic of deeper issues at Facebook

While the founders were around, the independence of these apps was at least a stray ray of hope.

In what is easily the most shocking news of the day, Instagram founder and CEO Kevin Systrom has announced his departure from Facebook. Along with Systrom, the CTO and co-founder of Instagram Mike Krieger is departing as well.

Systrom announced his departure on the Instagram blog page. “We’re planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again. Building new things requires that we step back, understand what inspires us and match that with what the world needs; that’s what we plan to do.” They are expected to leave within a few weeks.

 The departure of Instagrams founders is symptomatic of deeper issues at Facebook

Instagram Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Kevin Systrom attends the launch of a new service named Instagram Direct. Image: Reuters

Systrom and Kreiger founded Instagram in 2010 which was acquired by Facebook for $1 bn (effective $715 mn) in 2012. It grew from 30 million users in 2012 to over a billion users earlier this year. Instagram is easily Facebook’s smartest acquisition. But as has become a sort of trend at Facebook, just as we had seen with the WhatsApp founders (another company Facebook acquired for a whopping $19 bn), Instagram founders too aren’t going to be around anymore to head the product they created.

Not just another departure

While Systrom did not express any sort of negativity towards Facebook in his departure post, the talk around Silicon Valley is that the reason behind the exit of the Instagram founders was the increasing involvement of Facebook when it came to Instagram-related product decisions.

View this post on Instagram

@kevin and I are grateful for the last eight years at Instagram and six years with the Facebook team. We’ve grown from 13 people on the team to over a thousand with offices around the world, all while building products used and loved by a community of over one billion. We’ve loved learning to scale a company and nurture an enormous global community. And we couldn’t have done it without our amazing Instagram team, and the support of @zuck, @sherylsandberg, @schrep, and @chriscox at Facebook—we've learned so much from all of you. Now, we’re ready for our next chapter. We’re planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again. Building new things requires that we step back, understand what inspires us and match that with what the world needs; that’s what we plan to do. We remain excited for the future of Instagram and Facebook in the coming years as we transition from leaders to just two users in a billion. Thank you for being part of Instagram’s community—it’s been, and will continue to be, an honor.

A post shared by Mike Krieger (@mikeyk) on

According to a report in TechCrunch, the writing was on the wall when the autonomy of Instagram under Facebook came under threat after an upper management shuffle earlier this year. Instagram’s VP of Product Kevin Weil was replaced by Facebook NewsFeed VP Adam Mosseri. It doesn’t need a genius to predict what will happen if you let a Facebook NewsFeed boss look after Instagram — more Facebook.

Just take a look at the last couple of years and the number of features that have been launched by Instagram. Agreed, some of those features have added a lot of value, features like Stories, which, while a Snapchat rip-off, turned around the fortunes of Instagram. Sure, product evolution is a given. But have you noticed how Instagram is getting increasingly innovative with shoving advertisements in our faces? Every scroll on the Instagram app has at least a couple of ‘Sponsored’ photos showing up in your feed. What about the adding features from other Facebook properties such as Messenger and WhatsApp on Instagram DMs? Or the monetising of Instagram via separate apps?

Know which other social media platform tries to do any and everything to keep users hooked on its platform so that it can make money? Facebook.

Two-three years ago, no one even knew that Facebook owned Instagram. That’s because Instagram truly operated as an independent entity. But over the last couple of years, Facebook has ensured that it was embedded one way or another into the core Instagram product. Want to form an Instagram Business account? You better have a Facebook Page to link to. Logging in to Instagram using your Facebook ID has been around for a while. And as if Facebook notifications on Facebook weren’t enough, there is speculation about Facebook testing its notifications on Instagram as well.  

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on Systrom’s departure, “Kevin and Mike are extraordinary product leaders and Instagram reflects their combined creative talents. I've learned a lot working with them for the past six years and have really enjoyed it. I wish them all the best and I'm looking forward to seeing what they build next.” And here’s the kicker, this statement was up on Twitter, not even on Zuckerberg’s or Facebook's pages. It wasn't even on Instagram.

A deja vu of sorts

Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp (L) and Jan Koum, co-founder and CEO of WhatsApp. Reuters

Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp (L) and Jan Koum, co-founder and CEO of WhatsApp. Reuters

On 1 May this year, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum had announced his resignation. “The team is stronger than ever and it'll continue to do amazing things. I'm taking some time off to do things I enjoy outside of technology, such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee,” Koum said. To this, Zuckerberg had given a similar response about how he learned a lot from WhatsApp founders and would ensure that strong encryption would remain at the heart of WhatsApp. All this, when it was reported by many media outlets that Koum left WhatsApp precisely because of Facebook’s demands to monetise WhatsApp and, in effect, weakening its encryption to mine user data. The other co-founder of WhatsApp, Brian Acton, had even gone a step further and urged people to #DeleteFacebook in the light of the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal.

With the founders of these popular apps out of the system, Facebook installs its inner circle heads as product leads. It happened with WhatsApp, it will happen with Instagram. I wouldn't be surprised if there is a lot more integration of Instagram and Facebook to an extent where Instagram looks like a part of Facebook rather than a standalone app. Of course, it won’t happen immediately, but the signs are all around us. We have all seen how Facebook's noble act of 'connecting the unconnected in many parts of the world with its Free Basics program (which was thankfully booed out of India), has basically eroded the core tenets of net neutrality. For many countries in this list, for all practical purposes, Facebook = Internet. We have seen how that has played out in the Philippines and in Myanmar (from where it was recently taken off). With complete control over WhatsApp and very soon on Instagram, these two apps could be the default messaging and image sharing apps in the countries which has Free Basics.

Another reason for installing Facebook higher-ups in key positions in Instagram team could be the goodwill that the app has. Instagram is definitely seen at a higher pedestal in terms of popularity, in terms of millennial user engagement and in terms of growth potential over its parent Facebook. Amidst all the scandals affecting Facebook, from Cambridge Analytica to Russian meddling in elections, the only product that was relatively unaffected was Instagram.

User acquisition rates on Instagram are unparalleled, not just within the Facebook ecosystem, but across the social media industry. Instagram launched Instagram Stories a little less than 2 years ago. Back then, the Instagram user base was around 500 million users. In the two years since, Instagram has managed to garner another 500 million users. None of its contemporaries have managed to acquire half a billion users within two years. Facebook Stories, on the other hand, might as well not exist. Instagram has everything going for it, to overtake not just other social media platforms, but its parent Facebook itself.

In its July earnings call, with the shadow of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal still looming over Facebook, it was made clear by Zuckerberg that revenue and growth of Facebook would suffer over the next few quarters. Facebook saw a whopping 24 percent drop in its stock value, towards the end of July. Even Facebook knows that the monetisation possibilities offered by Instagram are immense and the only way to capitalise on that is through more integration with the core product.

Instagram and WhatsApp, two of Facebook’s key properties being without their founders, which are now expected to be headed by Facebook insiders is definitely not good news. It is just another example of Zuckerberg’s megalomania. While the founders were around, the independence of these apps was at least a stray ray of hope. Now there is really no stopping Facebook from having its way with two of the most popular apps in the whole world. I doubt there will be any sort of resistance to anything Facebook does with these apps going forward, considering it will most likely be headed by Facebook product people.

Prepare to see a lot more Facebook in your Instagram feed in the future.

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