Instagram is one of tech's great success stories. The network has seen incredible growth over the past couple of years to become a platform with 1 billion users. So this week, when founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger announced they were leaving the company, it came as a shock to many, even Facebook itself — Instagram's parent company was caught flat-footed without a prepared statement until the next day.
But perhaps the news shouldn't have come as a complete surprise. Earlier this month, The Verge reported that Instagram was considering adding a "regram" feature, akin to a retweet, where users could easily share and spread posts they like. But Instagram's founders have always been opposed to this idea, and for good reason: Such a feature would lend itself to the sort of rapid virality that is no doubt one of the worst parts of Twitter.
In other words, in their relentless quest for more engagement, Mark Zuckerberg and Co. have been well on the way to ruining Instagram for quite some time. And with the founders out of the way, it's very likely the Instagram that users know and love will soon cease to exist entirely.
Details about Systrom and Krieger's exit have started to leak out: It was apparently becoming harder for Instagram to operate as an independent entity within Facebook. But the core of the tension seems to be that the culture of the app was at odds with Facebook's economic needs.
In 2015, The Atlantic's Robinson Meyer described Instagram as a sort of reprieve, saying, "I am grateful for [Instagram] because it is a place of gratitude — coy, ironic, or earnest gratitude, sometimes, but always gratitude." It's true: Compared to both Facebook and Twitter, Instagram is often seen as a breath of fresh air, a place where politics tend to be less prominent and personal sharing is still prioritized.
But from the moment Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, a conflict was staged between the founders, concerned with the experience of the app, and the parent company, concerned with making money. In Facebook's eyes, engagement has to increase, ad pricing has to go up, and Instagram needs to fit into Facebook at large. After all, as tech analyst Ben Thompson astutely pointed out this week, Instagram's business model is firmly Facebook's and Zuckerberg's. "Controlling one's own destiny," he said, "takes more than product or popularity. It takes money, which is to say it takes building a company, working business model and all."
While Facebook certainly brings some financial stability to Instagram, it's likely that handing all control over to Facebook will result in the app's decline. After all, Facebook's own experiments on its main platform have hardly made the service better. And users are responding by abandoning the platform: John Herrmann at The New York Times has pointed out that the interactions that were once Facebook's bread and butter — personal posts and connections between family and friends — have been on the decline in developed markets.
That's arguably why Facebook has shifted so much emphasis over to Instagram: The photo-sharing app continues to grow in key places where Facebook does not, like North America, in part because it's a comparatively simple and unobtrusive interface; a service dedicated to pretty pictures is bound to feel peaceful. But a platform of pretty pictures is also prime real estate for advertising, and Facebook knows this. Soon, Instagram will feature more ads and shopping prompts. In other words, it will get worse because now, it exists to make money.
In hindsight, the idea that a company could amass users and then figure out a business model later seems woefully naïve, and indeed, it's just that approach that led to the dominance of the ad-supported model that has turned social media into an easily-gamed competition for attention.
But there is another way you can look at it: Before the business models were in place, we caught a glimpse of what might be possible for our apps, even if it wasn't sustainable. Will Instagram get worse? Almost inevitably. But perhaps its decline will force us to think about how our apps — and the business models that support them — could be better in the future.