The man who made a billion from selfies
Instagram's 32-year-old founder tells Bryony Gordon why photo-sharing is actually 'deeper than art'
Published 29/11/2016 | 02:30
Given that he is almost single-handedly responsible for the selfie-obsessed culture in which we currently live, Kevin Systrom is remarkably… well, unflash. The 32-year-old, who created photo-sharing app Instagram and is worth an estimated $1bn (€940m), wears jeans and a shirt under a V-neck jumper. He is neatly turned out, polite, a little dorky-looking, even. If I passed him on the street, I would probably assume he worked in a branch of Gap - but then, such is the Silicon Valley look.
We meet at the London offices of Facebook, the social media behemoth with which Systrom did a billion-dollar deal four years ago.
I am escorted up from reception by a burly man with a walkie-talkie; there is a palpable sense that someone exceptionally important is in the building.
Systrom started Instagram in 2010, when people still occasionally looked up from their phones to talk to other human beings; with its array of stylised filters that made even bad pictures look as if they had been taken by Mario Testino, the app soon changed that.
Before long, people were sucking in cheekbones and waving their phones on sticks in the air to get the perfect self-portrait. They weren't drinking coffee - they were photographing it.
You could track the time around the world from people's images of sunrises and sunsets. #Captions came to be written entirely in #hashtags.
Today, Instagram has more than 500 million users; around 95 million photos and videos are uploaded each day, generating at least four billion "likes".
It is used by celebrities, politicians and even the Pope - though he has yet to post a selfie. In the summer, 'Forbes' described the company as "the grand slam that's driving Facebook's future".
But Instagram has also become a byword for 21st-century narcissism. Social commentators blame it for a rise in anxiety and depression among young people; last week a study by Edinburgh University's Moray House School of Education found that social media were creating a "hyper-critical" environment for school pupils who were living under the same level of scrutiny as celebrities.
"Instacurity", whereby people crave the sleekly edited life of Instagram celebrities and the endless likes they ensnare, has become a thing.
This is not news to Systrom, the son of a marketing executive and a company vice-president from Massachusetts. He is ever conscious of the responsibility that comes with running a major social media platform: earlier this year, Instagram introduced a tool that enables users to remove comments containing words they find "unkind" or "inappropriate". Yet after being trialled by pop singer Taylor Swift, it led to complaints about online censorship and the indulgence of the "snowflake generation".
Instagram are damned if it does and damned if it doesn't, and Systrom is largely unapologetic for the effect his idea has had on society. He believes - unsurprisingly - that it is actually a power for good, a sharing community that transcends all barriers.
"I think one of the cool things about Instagram is that you connect globally. You may not necessarily speak the same language, but we all have the common language of an image."
Systrom came up with Instagram after winning a place on Stanford University's illustrious start-up course, taking the concept of human brains being mostly visual and running with it. He was offered a job by Mark Zuckerberg, who wanted him to develop the photo-sharing side of his new website (then called The Facebook), but turned it down to work part-time in a coffee shop instead. He would later serve Zuckerberg lattes.
After graduation, he worked at Google before creating a prototype of a new social-media platform with numerous features; feedback showed that people didn't want a complicated product, so he scaled it down to photo-sharing. Instagram was born.
It had a million users within a month, and after two years he sold it to Zuckerberg for $1bn.
Yet his creation isn't merely a tool for sharing picture-perfect brunches.
"There is something [about Instagram] that is deeper than photography, deeper than art… Before the written word, before the printing press, before books, we always communicated in a visual manner. I joke that emojis are just futuristic versions of hieroglyphics.
"Instagram is the next-generation communication platform. So of course you can communicate wonderful things like a beautiful sunset, like a great latte, but you can also communicate very serious things such as the destruction of Aleppo."
The weight of his role would give others chills, but Systrom's relentlessly upbeat American manner means he sees it as a positive. "The reason I have done a big push [on cleaning up the app] in the last couple of months is because there aren't many people who have the ability to make a difference.…It's less about trying to be at the centre of everyone's lives while also being ethically minded, and more, like: 'Well, since we are at the centre of everyone's lives, we get to do all this amazing stuff to help people'."
He spends a great deal of time talking to advocacy groups about how to improve the service. They recently launched a tool whereby users can anonymously report friends whose posts contain worrying content about their mental health; the user will then be sent links to helpful resources. It's not perfect, but the truth is that for many who are social-media savvy, Instagram is an infinitely more pleasant place to be than the bear pit of Twitter or rabble-rousing Facebook.
Has social media created an abusive atmosphere or have humans always been this way inclined? "I think a lot about how people act differently when they're anonymous. If anything, I think our job is to make people feel individually connected, for them to feel a sense of community."
He does not see the selfie as the great destroyer of civilised culture. "If you walk through the National Gallery halls, what do you see? Portrait after portrait. Self-portraits have been around for ever. It just so happens now that everybody's an artist and everybody has the ability to capture a self-portrait at any moment."
Does he think of them as an artform, then? "I do."
When we meet, Systrom has just celebrated his first wedding anniversary to Nicole Schuetz, the chief executive of an investment firm. The night before, he left his phone in his hotel room by mistake.
"The entire time I was fearful that I was missing a message. I mean, it's important to step away from the device every now and then. But I love to capture my memories with my phone, whether it's the trees or when I discover a cool coffee shop.
"I suppose I could keep a journal, but . . ." he smiles, "sometimes taking a photo is just better." (© Daily Telegraph, London)