Last week, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the co-founders of Instagram, announced that they were leaving Facebook, where they had worked since Mark Zuckerberg bought their company six years ago. “We’re planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again,” Systrom wrote in a statement on the Instagram blog. “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.”
Quite so. It’s always refreshing when young millionaires decide to spend more time with their money. (Facebook paid $715m for their little outfit when it acquired it; Instagram had 13 employees at the time.) But to those of us who have an unhealthy interest in what goes on at Facebook, the real question about Systrom’s and Krieger’s departure was: what took them so long?
Since they’re smart lads, one imagines they must have realised that what they were trying to do within the Facebook empire was doomed to fail. They evidently hoped to continue to run Instagram as a distinct entity while harnessing the engineering and global computing infrastructure of Facebook to enable it to grow more quickly than it would have done as an independent company.
In that, at least, they were right. Instagram has grown like crazy. In June, it reached the one billion user mark. This year, it’s expected to bring in $6bn in advertising revenue, which means that it’s the biggest generator revenue within Facebook after the main news feed. One analyst thinks that Instagram will provide Facebook with $20bn by 2020, about a quarter of the company’s total revenue.
If Systrom and Krieger imagined that they would be left alone to run such a money pump within the Zuckerberg dictatorship they were delusional, especially given that for some time there were intimations of things to come. Earlier this year, for example, Facebook removed a shortcut link to Instagram from its bookmarks menu inside the Facebook app, thereby eliminating traffic that flowed from Facebook to Instagram.
And whereas Systrom and Krieger originally reported directly to the Supreme Leader, a few months ago, Zuckerberg installed a layer of management between them and him, with the result that the boys found themselves reporting to Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer. At which point it must have been clear that the writing was on the wall.
All of which is par for the Facebook course. In 2014, the company paid a staggering $19bn for the messaging app WhatsApp, whose founder, Jan Koum, always vowed that its users’ privacy would be paramount.
“Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA,” he wrote in a blog post after the Facebook acquisition had been announced, “and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible. You don’t have to give us your name and we don’t ask for your email address. We don’t know your birthday. We don’t know your home address. We don’t know where you work. We don’t know your likes, what you search for on the internet or collect your GPS location. None of that data has ever been collected and stored by WhatsApp and we really have no plans to change that.”
Reading that at the time, one wondered what Koum had been smoking if he believed that he would be able to stick to those lofty principles within a corporation whose business model depends on knowing all those things about its users.
Within Facebook, Koum tried to run WhatsApp on his lofty principles. He even provided end-to-end encryption for users to make sure that their messages could not be monitored for targeting purposes. But Zuckerberg, who had left WhatsApp untouched and independent for some years, finally snapped.
The service would have to start making real money, either by weakening encryption or by some other means such as mapping users’ networks. In April, Koum announced his resignation from Facebook and departed, a sadder, wiser (though much richer) man.
So the only surprising thing about the experiences of the founders of Instagram and WhatsApp is that anyone should be surprised by what’s happened to them. Facebook is a data vampire; the only thing it does is suck people’s life data in order to paint targets on their backs for the benefit of advertisers. All that sanctimonious guff about “building a global community” is just corporate cant.
And any startup founder hoping to be acquired by Zuckerberg’s empire ought to remember Winston Churchill’s definition of appeasement as “feeding a crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last”. Because he will.