Instagram has had a massive impacting in shaping our culture over the last decade – it’s redefined our measures of success and celebrity. It’s easy now to see it as somehow inevitable, but in No Filter, winner of the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year 2020, Sarah Frier uncovers the backstory of the app – the philosophy of its founders and the complex relationship with new owner Facebook.
Along the way she also takes us behind the scenes of her own writing practice – the journalistic imperative to find the new angle, the colour-coded index cards, the plot-shaping, the late nights, the long showers, and the rosé.
A masterclass in business book writing and a fascinating glimpse into one of the defining forces of our culture.
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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Sarah Frier who reports on social media companies for Bloomberg News from San Francisco. Her award- winning features and breaking stories have earned her a reputation as an expert on how Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter make business decisions that affect their future and our society. She’s a frequent contributor to Bloomberg Business Week and Bloomberg Television.
She’s the author of No Filter: The inside story of how Instagram transformed business, celebrity and our culture, which won the 2020 FT McKinsey Business Book of the Year award. So welcome to the show, Sarah. I know it’s a bit late, but congratulations on the award. Wonderful, wonderful news.
Sarah Frier: Thank you. It’s really wonderful that so many people connected with the story not just in the business world, but people who use this product every day.
Alison Jones: Yes, it has real bleed throughout the whole of society, doesn’t it? It’s such a part… and we’ll come on to that as well, but well, actually, maybe that’s where we start. Just tell me about the motivation for writing the book. You know, why this, why Instagram.
Sarah Frier: So after the 2016 presidential election in the US and Brexit, tech reporters had this moment of realization that these companies were not simply businesses, not simply entertainment products, but had become part of the infrastructure of our society, shaping our information diets, making it possible to be manipulated by foreign governments in some cases, by what they put out.
And for me as a reporter, I just was thinking: where should I be looking next? Where should I go so I’m not blindsided again by a huge cultural moment? And I made a list and Instagram was on that list. At the time the company was considered, it had been acquired by Facebook in 2012, and it was considered this perfect acquisition, this billion- dollar purchase where Instagram got to be tucked into Facebook, but remains independent. And it was just a happier place. And of course when you hear a story like that, or when that kind of story is general knowledge, it usually means a journalist just hasn’t been asking questions. So I started to ask questions and as I dug deeper into Instagram, I realized a rich tapestry of clashing egos, and interesting decisions and competitive forces and tension within Facebook Corporate with Instagram.
And it just really revealed to me that this product that has had such an outsized impact on our global culture, on our economy, on our lives, on how we think of fame, on how we think of starting new businesses, on what we do on our vacations and dates and how we judge popularity at school, all of these things, that cultural impact was so defined by the decisions by just a few people in the San Francisco Bay area responding to all of these forces.
Alison Jones: And that comes across so strongly is that, you know, most of us think of Instagram as a force of nature, but you get to the people, you get to the stories behind, and that was fascinating and the sense that it wasn’t inevitable, the sense that people were making it up as they went along, just incredible.
Sarah Frier: It was really just a lesson in how the people behind these products are human. They’re not geniuses necessarily. They are very, very smart, but they’re also, you know, second guessing themselves, making decisions, dealing with friendships, dealing with personal lives and all of the same kinds of pressures.
I mean one thing that Instagram has done is really redefined for much of us what success means. And if you’re a user of Instagram, you probably think it means a higher follower count, more comments, more likes. And the Instagram that you see within Facebook is also striving for success as defined by Facebook, which is growth. Growth in our attention, growth in user numbers, growth in cultural impact.
And so you really see that striving of the company, the people behind it to make those moves, and sometimes without regard for the impact that they have on the quality of the product and the experience of people using it.
Alison Jones: And even the ideology behind it, because I hadn’t quite taken the point before that you can’t share on Instagram, which has always irritated me, but it’s because of that respect for intellectual property, you know, this is you put a picture up, it’s your picture. It doesn’t go viral. But of course that’s the complete antithesis to the way Facebook see the world.
So it was really interesting just seeing those clashing ideologies playing out. And Mark Zuckerberg does not come well out of this, does he?
Sarah Frier: No, but you’re totally right that those early product decisions, especially the decision to restrict resharing. I mean, at the time that was considered a very artist- friendly move, because if you were a photographer, you were you know, an artist using Instagram, you wouldn’t want your work to be shared so easily, you would want your profile to reflect your work.
But what ended up happening is Instagram became the ultimate place to show off a personal brand because everything we put in our Instagram is something that we have created. And so it, it has this impact that is so different than what we see on Facebook and Twitter, where resharing is the norm.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s absolutely fascinating. And when you were having those conversations with the founders, with the people who were right there at the beginning of the story, was there anything about that process that surprised you?
Sarah Frier: Well, I think that I was surprised by the smallness of Instagram. But also how much of an outsize impact they had on who became famous. They had a real intention, unlike Facebook and Twitter, where, you know, you just kind of want to get bigger and you don’t really pay much attention to who’s getting bigger.
On Instagram they had a real intention of highlighting the people that they thought were making good content. The @Instagram account, for instance, has more followers today than any Kardashians or sports star, that account with, I think around 350 million followers is every day helping shape who becomes famous and helping shape our culture and what we see Instagram as.
So that really direct behind-the-scenes influence over our culture by Instagram, Instagram as the ultimate influencer of our lives, was surprising to me. The other thing that was surprising to me was, and I don’t want to give too much away, but at the end of the story, in my book, Mark Zuckerberg, who as I mentioned is very dead set on growing the company, making it bigger and he sees Instagram start to achieve those goals. And then he’s threatened by that success and starts to restrict their resources, even though he owns the company. So that to me was fascinating to learn just that, you know, for him, the success of Facebook, the social network was not the same thing as the success of Facebook, Inc, the company that included Instagram.
Alison Jones: Yes. I thought that was absolutely, a real scarcity mindset thing coming out there.
Sarah Frier: That he thought that Instagram, the word he would use is cannibalize. He thought that Instagram’s success would cannibalize Facebook’s success. And over time you become a Facebook alternative, which of course it was starting to become.
Alison Jones: Yes, but then when you own it, you’d think that would be future-proofing it or creating a slightly different demographic or something. That’s really interesting how you’re, I guess when you are the founder, there’s something in that relationship with your baby that trumps the kind of purely pragmatic CEO role.
Sarah Frier: We have this myth that Mark Zuckerberg is a robot, that he is fully numbers focused and will stop at nothing to do whatever makes the most sense in an engineering mindset. And I really feel like that example with Instagram is one where it was more emotional than rational.
Alison Jones: And that is one of the things that really, I think, defines your book, is that you are a journalist but you’re storytelling here. And you are, you’re really getting into how people felt at the time, what makes them tick, these sorts of, you know, complex interplays of emotion versus rationality. Was that a really conscious decision, the way that you chose to write in that storytelling way?
Sarah Frier: I think that I wanted it to be an immersive narrative, one that people could enter and feel like they were in the room when all these decisions were being made. I definitely didn’t want to write a sort of ‘how to be great at Instagram’, because I feel like there are maybe hundreds of those now, everyone wants to strive for it.
What I really bring to the table, that I hope I bring to the table as a reporter, is having the relationships with the people that are in the room making these decisions behind the scenes, that then go on to affect so many of us in our everyday lives.
Alison Jones: And was it a surprise to you that it was received quite as well as it was? I mean, I always love getting the behind-the-scenes pictures. What happened when you heard that you had won the Business Book of the Year award?
Sarah Frier: Well, I thought it was first of all, very surprising for my first book. But I also thought it was a validation of my attempt to write a different kind of business story. I think that a lot of business books are hero’s journeys where you have somebody usually, you know, it’s a white man, sorry to say, who comes up with a great idea and then proves all the haters wrong and becomes super rich.
And the book is essentially trying to get you inside his head so that you can learn how to do the same. And I don’t think that the story of Instagram is a hero’s journey. I think that it’s a much more complicated story than that.
There are trade-offs in business, right? It’s not all true that once you succeed as defined in our capitalist society, once you make the money and sell, do the deal and ride off into the sunset, that you have done well, right.
And I think that we are coming to a moment in our society where we’re starting to rethink what success should mean. You know, if you’re the richest man in the world, but there all of these downsides to what you’ve accomplished, I think we have to look at the holistic picture.
Alison Jones: Which also ties in with that assumption of growth at all costs, doesn’t it? You know, where does that end?
Sarah Frier: Well it’s now, it’s become infused into our mindset as a society that where we think, you and I are, you know, maybe not, not exactly us, but regular people using these products are looking at their follower counts and their engagement rates on these platforms as validation of their place in society, as a marker of popularity, as a value sign for whether they’re worth anything.
And, I think that it’s important to detach ourselves from that pressure and think about, okay, well, what do these numbers mean? Do they mean success for me? Or do they mean success for the metrics of Facebook, Inc? Trying to make everything bigger.
Alison Jones: Yeah, you are the product, people.
Sarah Frier: Okay.
Alison Jones: And tell me about your writing as well Sarah, clearly you, you know, you write, that’s what you do, you’re a journalist, but I’m always fascinated as how people move from the idea to the finished piece. How do you assemble your ideas? How do you start writing? What works for you?
Sarah Frier: A book is a fascinating departure from what usually works for me. I tend to try to have just a constant conversation through my work with my audience. And I do that through Twitter. I do that through coffee meetings. I do that through late night drinks with sources. And I just try to understand, you know, how does it work? How should I be thinking about this? What’s next?
And with a book it’s so different because you can’t have that conversation until you’re done, and in the meantime, you’re debating with yourself about all these things I’ve heard, what’s important and what’s the plot and who are the characters. And why did I think that that was important?
So there’s a lot of just thinking that goes into it. And sometimes you’ll write something, I’ll say, why did I write it like that? Maybe I need to explain better. And you’re just debating with yourself until it sees the light of day.
So I definitely don’t write in order. I write the most interesting things first.
Alison Jones: You create your pearls and then you string them together. Yes. I love that. And I guess you’ve got that tension all the time between building from the ground up where you’ve got these key scenes and you know this is important and you have to capture this conversation. And then you’ve got the kind of the macro structure, that overarching, you know, your big themes about the tension between the founders and growth and the impact on society.
And somehow you’ve got to kind of stitch those two together. Haven’t you?
Sarah Frier: I have a boss at Bloomberg, his name is Brad Stone. He wrote the first big book on Amazon called The Everything Store. And I asked him, like, how do you possibly know when you are done with reporting and ready to start writing? Because with a topic as big as the whole story of Instagram, you could just report forever and you could just write as long as you want to write. And how do you know when you can stop?
And he told me that for a good business book, a deeply reported business book, you want to learn at least 100 things that have never been published before. So during the reporting phase of my book, I was very focused on getting up to that 100.
Every time I would learn of a new anecdote or moment, I would go about trying to confirm it so I could add it to my list of little nuggets of new information that I was collecting. And then when you go from that into the storytelling phase, you have to think, okay, I probably, maybe don’t even need to use all of these.
What is actually important, but what is the point of this story? What am I trying to say? And, you kind of, sometimes you don’t really find out until you started typing.
Alison Jones: Ahh that is what I was trying to say. Yes. And when you are organizing that material, what do you use? Do you work online, offline, you got index cards, have you got scraps of paper?
Sarah Frier: I had colour-coded index cards. I just wanted to detach myself from screens for a while and I made them thematic, so all of those new anecdotes I learned, I would use yellow for a culture story, red for a competition story, a blue for a founder story, like something personal for them.
No, blue for internal Facebook conflict, because Facebook is blue, and then green for founder stories. And so that was my tactic and I would mark them by year and I put them in order. And, but, you know, I make myself sound a lot more organized than I am. I definitely…
Alison Jones: Don’t spoil it We’re so impressed.
Sarah Frier: … you know, just stayed up very late writing, kinda woke up and wrote some more.
Alison Jones: That was the system.
Sarah Frier: That was the system. With a couple of glasses of rosé.
Alison Jones: And I love that old-school approach as well. You’re a tech journalist and there you are with your colour-coded index cards. It’s brilliant. I mean, it makes complete sense because you must get so sick of a screen.
Sarah Frier: You have to go on walks and you have to take long showers and you have to just kind of like… most of writing is thinking and if you’re on Twitter, you’re not thinking
Alison Jones: Harsh, but fair.
Sarah Frier: Well, I’m often on Twitter. So no knock against that.
Alison Jones: But it’s so easy, isn’t it? Because you end up in this constant state of consumption rather than creation and it’s so seductive.
Sarah Frier: Yes.
Alison Jones: Yes. And it’s useful. It’s necessary.
Sarah Frier: Part of what is so powerful about these social products, in Instagram in particular, is that they are passive experiences that you don’t necessarily have to do anything. You can just go there and absorb. And that is why we are so easily influenced or in some cases, even negatively manipulated by the information that we are served.
Because we just are scrolling and not asking for anything. It’s different if we are trying to find the answer to a question, if we’re Googling what’s the best way to be safe from COVID maybe we’ll find what we’re looking for, but if we’re just scrolling and somebody tells us, well, all you need are these vitamin supplements and…
Alison Jones: Mentioning no names here.
Sarah Frier: Yeah. Yeah. Then, you might say, Oh, that’s interesting, maybe I should buy some vitamins instead of doing what you actually should do during the pandemic.
Alison Jones: Yes. It’s interesting. Your critical faculty sort of switches off, doesn’t it? When you’re in active research you are evaluating things or I’d like to think that you were evaluating, when you are passively scrolling things can just, yes, get by.
Sarah Frier: They go into the back of your brain and then you bring them up during dinner. And you can’t remember where you heard what you’re talking about.
Alison Jones: Yeah. Yep. I hear you.
If I asked you for one really good tip for a first-time author, because, you know, you write all the time as I say, but if somebody’s starting off on this journey, what one thing would you advise them?
Sarah Frier: I would say that you need to become confident being your own boss. In your everyday life you have people who can tell you this is what’s important. This is how you structure it. This is how a typical thing, you know, story, projects, et cetera, should look and behave.
When you’re working on your own book, especially if it’s your first book, you are defining all of those things for yourself. What does quality look like to you? What does storytelling look like to you? Do you want to use you know, a cinematic style, narrative non-fiction style? Do you want to do more journalistic style? Do you want to do more self-help style? Like you could just… it’s your project to define.
And so you can change the rules. You can do what works for you.
Alison Jones: Which is sort of terrifying, but very exhilarating as well, isn’t it?
Sarah Frier: And it’s lonely. It is lonely. But it is in the end it is very rewarding and not to say I didn’t, I had countless mentors and people I leaned on during the process. But nobody has all the information that you have in your brain when you’re reporting, so, ultimately the decisions, the factors in any writing decision, are yours because you’re the only one who knows what you’re working with.
Alison Jones: Yes, and you will get lots of advice and even just owning that, knowing that it’s your decision and you can evaluate things, but you can also reject them, I think is really powerful. I think people struggle with that sometimes. particularly if they’re not very confident.
That’s that’s a great tip. Thanks very much. And I also always ask people to recommend a business book. Clearly everybody should read No Filter. Genuinely. You should read it. It’s an excellent book. But is there another book that you would recommend to people listening to the podcast?
Sarah Frier: So I would recommend, I just finished this one, I’d recommend pre-ordering Amazon Unbound by the mentor I mentioned, Brad Stone. He has written, he wrote the first book about Amazon, but this one is about the modern Amazon. The giant that has all of this power. If you’re interested in No Filter, you would love this book because he certainly goes behind the scenes of all of the tentacles of Amazon’s business and shows you how things really work.
So I think that’s coming out in May. For a book that’s out now. I have been enjoying Driven by Alex Davies. He’s a long- time journalist covering cars and he writes about the origin of the electric car and it’s very interesting.
Alison Jones: Oh, that is fascinating. Yes, again, something, a technology phenomenon with massive societal impact.
Sarah Frier: Absolutely and his is very much cinematic. I think it’s already being adapted into something for screen.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s not often business books get the screen rights purchased, I can tell you that as a long- time business book publisher. So that’s very exciting.
Where can people find out more about you, Sarah and your work and the book?
Sarah Frier: I am on Twitter, Instagram. I write for Bloomberg and Business Week. I love hearing from people, if they have ideas of things I should pursue, don’t limit it to social media, I have a sort of broader mandate now where I’m looking into tech power at large, and I’m looking forward to hearing people’s thoughts.
Alison Jones: Fantastic, and you probably are in the most interesting journalistic space possible at the moment, aren’t you?
Sarah Frier: It is really interesting and it’s changing every day.
Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. So timely. Brilliant. Just such a delight to talk to you, Sarah. Thank you so much for your time today.
Sarah Frier: Thank you for having me.