Instagram: the unglamorous story of how it all began

Poscast: The Instagram founders’ story is both refreshing and slightly unsettling at once

Mike Krieger, left, and Kevin Systrom, the co-founders of Instagram, on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California in  2016. Photograph: Jason Henry/The New York Times

Mike Krieger, left, and Kevin Systrom, the co-founders of Instagram, on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California in 2016. Photograph: Jason Henry/The New York Times

 

How I Built This – Instagram: Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger

This NPR series focuses each episode on an in-depth conversation between presenter Guy Raz, and founders who contributed a notable business or product to the world.

This podcast pitch runs the risk of sounding like a 30-minute advertisement for a product we may not need, or a running string of tech and start-up jargon, but it neatly sidesteps these and instead provides some really interesting insights into products we use everyday.

This episode looks closely at the invention, start-up, and global domination of Instagram: an app that, like it or not, defined how a generation communicates and records our lives.

The tone in which Kevin Systrom and Mike Kreiger talk about Instagram is almost shockingly frank – their bumbling early stages of wanting to build a check-in app like Foursquare, their focus on encouraging users to share their data, show that Instagram was never quite intended to become as global a media platform as it is today. The by-now trope of two lads working in a coffee shop over their laptops suddenly turning tech millionaires is the truth of Systrom and Kreiger’s story.

There is a shared anecdote about sourcing $50,000 (€40,926) funding over a coffee that is told with such a casual tone it may as well have been a story about a stranger offering to buy your latte.

An interesting truth that emerges – again, in a tone so casual it almost bears rewinding and listening to again – is the origin of the photo filter system. This feature is what elevated Instagram above other photo-sharing apps of the time, and more importantly, one that turned all of us, miraculously, into better photographers. Or at least more confident photographers. The idea was given to Systrom by his wife, Nicole, who admitted on a holiday in Mexico that she would use it more if she was a better photographer. Systrom told her that the better photographers on the app at the time were using other apps to filter their photos to make them better looking – and Nicole flat out instructed him to include filters on Instagram.

As with so much of the app-economy, the ever growing and swelling and falling range of digital products, it is never a case of who did it first, but rather “who did it best?”. Instagram is shown in this interview to certainly be an amalgam of other apps, stripped back and perfected – but it certainly at no point is hailed as a sudden brilliant bolt from the blue.

Systrom and Kreiger aren’t playing the visionary here, they’re engineers and businessmen: this is both refreshing and slightly unsettling all at once.

The ascent of Instagram chronicled here is fascinating and there are certainly a couple of gorgeous and humble moments in the interview, too. Something quite heartwarming, in its way, is the first instance when the product became referred to as “Instagram” in the press, not just “Instagram, the photo sharing app,” as a moment when they realised they had made something huge that needed no explanation. Clocking in at a neat, commute-length 30 minutes, this interview is the frank and unglamorous origin story of an app that millions upon millions of us use everyday, an app that entirely reframed and refiltered how we tell the story of our lives.

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