The one thing you never hear in Silicon Valley is an entrepreneur admit they copied someone else. Yet there in the headquarters of Facebook, the world’s most prolific product cloner, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom surprised me.
He’d just walked me through the demo of Instagram Stories, a pixel for pixel photocopy of Snapchat Stories. The products look so similar I couldn’t help but chuckle as he progressed through the slide deck about a feature he said would probably look familiar.
For 30 minutes, the elephant lingered there in Systrom’s plush office alongside Instagram’s PR chief and me. We sat around a table made from a print of a shaggy dog, the first photo ever posted on the app. Six years later, Systrom revealed how for the last six days, he’d posted nothing to Instagram.
Despite the glamorous life of a CEO who’d sold his startup for nearly a billion dollars, his day-to-day wasn’t interesting enough to share to Instagram’s feed. It was a permanent place where you “only get to see the highlights,” where teens often delete photos if they don’t get enough Likes in the first few minutes. The app was losing shoot-from-the-hip lifecasting to Snapchat.
So Instagram made Stories.
Recording versus experiencing life
How that will impact the social media landscape remains to be seen. Built atop the massively popular Instagram feed, this content hole will compel users to fill it. Adults who want to play with Snapchat’s creation tools, but in front of an audience they’ve already built, will probably enjoy it.
Perhaps most worrisome is the idea of lifecasting becoming a mainstream behavior pattern. Rather than shooting the occasional photo and sharing the best one to Instagram, now it wants you constantly capturing life’s moments, even if that means ruining them by pulling out your phone. Suddenly a sunset or adventure with friends must be interrupted, the sense of humanity and presence traded for a wider audience.
Systrom doesn’t see it that way. When asked about Instagram Stories begging us to record instead of experience, he said “There are so many positive use cases that I think they outweigh the negative one that you just described.” He cited the ability to understand the daily life of North Koreans or refugee workers through Stories and scenes they’d never put on Instagram.
“That outweighs the ‘are you super present for that sunset?’ It’s all about ‘can you connect with people all around the world and learn about new ideas, new cultures, break down barriers?'” Systrom claims. “We like to say Instagram makes the world feel simultaneously large, in the sense that you can connect with anyone, and very small in the sense that you’re right there with them.”
Sure, browsing Instagram exposes you to moments you wouldn’t see. But doesn’t it take you out of the moment when you inject your phone into an otherwise authentic situation?
Systrom responded with his own question, “Do you meditate at all? One of the parts of meditation is actually being aware of your surroundings… Sometimes taking a photo, looking down at it, editing it, adding a caption, whatever, actually makes you appreciate the moment that you’re in, it makes you stop and say, ‘That sunset is beautiful.’ So I’m not entirely sure that it takes you out of the moment. I wonder if it actually has the opposite feeling, which is making you more present. I don’t have the proof for that, but it’s a thesis.”
The one honest person in tech
Sure, a camera can open your eyes to the beauty that surrounds you. But once you’ve recognized it, getting the right photo or video can also divorce you from that beauty. You stop thinking about the sunset, the fading warmth, the gratitude you feel and instead stare into your phone wondering if sharing it will make you look cool.
If Instagram Classic wasn’t enough sharing, Instagram Stories could be too much.
Still, everyone in our interview room knew there was no avoiding the Snapchat question, so I just put it bluntly. “Let’s talk about the big thing. Snapchat pioneered a lot of this format. Whole parts of the concept, the implementation, down to the details…”
“Totally,” Systrom interrupted me. “They deserve all the credit.”
I was flabbergasted.
Facebook had blatantly copied Snapchat before with failed products like Poke and Slingshot. It had ripped off entire startups like TimeHop, which Facebook recreated as On This Day, or features like Twitter’s hashtags and trending topics. And when asked where the ideas came from, the company’s executives always said something like “we see behaviors from our community and we try to build on top of them” or “I don’t spend too much time looking at what other people are doing or not doing.”
But Systrom bravely told the truth (emphasis mine):
“When you are an innovator, that’s awesome. Just like Instagram deserves all the credit for bringing filters to the forefront. This isn’t about who invented something. This is about a format, and how you take it to a network and put your own spin on it.
Facebook invented feed, LinkedIn took on feed, Twitter took on feed, Instagram took on feed, and they all feel very different now and they serve very different purposes. But no one looks down at someone for adopting something that is so obviously great for presenting a certain type of information.
Innovation happens in the Valley, and people invent formats, and that’s great. And then what you see is those formats proliferate. So @ usernames were invented on Twitter. Hashtags were invented on Twitter. Instagram has those. Filtered photos were not invented on Instagram.
And I think what you see is that every company looks around and adopts the best of the best formats or state-of-the-art technology. Snapchat adopted face filters that existed elsewhere first, right? And slideshows existed in other places, too. Flipagram was doing it for a while. So I think that’s the interesting part of the Valley. You can’t just recreate another product. But you can say ‘what’s really awesome about a format? And does it apply to our network?’
Don’t you think that Snapchat’s done a really awesome job? And Facebook’s done a great job. And Instagram’s done a great job. I think all of these companies have done a great job. Some people invent stuff. We’ve invented things.
Gmail was not the first email client. Google Maps was certainly not the first map. The iPhone was definitely not the first phone. The question is what do you do with that format? What do you do with that idea? Do you build on it? Do you add new things? Are you trying to bring it in a new direction?
We’re bringing some new creative outlets with ‘neon drawing.’ You have different ways of navigating back and forth with this. You have a completely different audience. If you’re a business, if you’re a celebrity, if you’re an interest-based account, you can have a giant audience. It’s going to feel very different. I don’t believe these two things are substitutes, and that’s okay.”
In engineering, this concept is known as “The Right Thing” — the ideal way of solving a problem that everyone should use. On the back end of technology products, going with The Right Thing even if someone else invented it, is common. Amazon Web Services and Twilio SMS and MySQL databases.
Yet on the front end, where there are more subjective design choices to be made about not just what to do, but how, a sickness of pride has infected Silicon Valley.
With users, investors and job candidates all watching, no one is willing to fess up that another company did it right, and there was no better way to reinvent the wheel. You could polish it differently and pretend that was innovation instead of optimization. The press would ding you. Yet in the end, if the product worked and felt useful, people would adopt it, and in techland, growth is king.
But finally, with Systrom, we’ve found someone seemingly resistant to the sickness of pride, and hopefully he can inoculate others so they cite their sources and practice the transparency so many preach.
Check out the rest of our Instagram Stories coverage: