Instagram chief sees big picture as app attracts 800m users
Boosted by its Stories posts and positive approach, the platform has big plans, co-founder Mike Krieger tells Adrian Weckler
In April of this year, Instagram announced that it had 700 million monthly users. By September, that had increased to 800 million, with a staggering 500 million using the service every day.
Much of that is down to Mike Krieger. With Kevin Systrom, he co-founded the service seven years ago. Although they sold it to Facebook in 2012 for $1bn, they stayed on running the company.
Krieger's strategy has been simple: keep it visual and keep it positive. It seems to have worked. Bigger than Snapchat and Twitter combined, Instagram is a world relatively unscathed by the rancour, trolls and toxic politics that other social networks are criticised for.
Its business brain is evolving, too. This year it doubled the number of advertisers on the platform to two million. It is now a routine part of the growth plans of thousands of Irish companies, particularly in the retail, food and hospitality sectors.
Adrian Weckler sat down with Krieger at Instagram's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
Adrian Weckler [AW]: When you launched Stories, there was a lot of commentary about how it was really similar to Snapchat. What's your response to that?
Mike Krieger [MK]: We were really transparent about it because I think it would have been really disingenuous to say we came up with this product ourselves. They [Snapchat] definitely came up with this format first. Flipogram had a similar format as well. Kudos to them, they came up with a great format. But I don't think that's a reason not to have our community able to share in that way. I also think had we just glued something on that didn't fit with our product, we'd probably be taking it out six months later because it wouldn't have worked. Instead it's really thrived. I think because it has actually fits a need that people have.
We have a semi-annual all-hands [meeting] where Kevin and I talk about Instagram the company. During the last one, we talked about innovation and the myth of the lone inventor in the garage with the light-bulb. This is so problematic when you actually look at the history of how things get built. It's often about like taking ideas and recombining them and adding your own perspective or spin on it, bringing it to a new audience and helping them succeed in that way.
So we encourage our engineers not to try to come up with the one idea that's never been done before, but instead think about a real-world metaphor for what they're building. It's a little bit like that idea of standing on the shoulders of giants but it's more like ladder climbing with everybody kind of innovating collaboratively.
Whatever its origin, Stories has been a runaway success for you. Does that surprise you?
MK: It wasn't a total surprise as we saw that behaviour being hacked into the product beforehand. People were creating a bunch of second accounts, which we called Finstagrams, or fake Instagrams. They were using those secondary accounts to post effectively what they would have posted had we had a Stories product. We would see Finstagrams of over 20 posts a day whereas on their main feed posts, people would only post one Instagram a day because they thought it had to be a good one. So we learned was there was this real latent desire to share more frequently. We just were not serving that from the product so people were going out and using Snapchat instead. They were even posting things on their Instagram like 'hey, I'd share more from this event that I'm at but I can't because I don't want to double insta, and here's where you can get it'. We weren't trying to invent a behaviour nobody wanted. It was more like it was a floodgate of people who were just waiting for a product that would let them do that.
Despite its enormous scale, Instagram has largely managed to remain removed from being identified as a place where news issues are played out, sometimes acrimoniously. Has that been a conscious strategy?
MK: The way I think about it is it can still be - and it still is - part of those discussions. There's been a lot of political upheaval this year, but there's a role for Instagram to be both a place where you can follow your interests and get away from all of that a little bit. But when you do choose to participate, it is in that first-person way.
There was a Women's March held here early in the year. And it was really interesting to see what the different platforms had as their content. On Facebook there were articles being written about it but on Instagram, it was all people participating, being there, sharing stories. So, by nature that ended up being less about back and forth or really reacting to something people wrote and more like 'here's my role in this democratic process'.
You talk about 'kindness' in relation to Instagram. Why don't you have the same troll problem as Twitter or Facebook?
MK: We tried to encourage positivity from the beginning and I think the platform did that. Obviously as you grow to 100 million and then out to 800 million people, not everybody is nice. That's fine, because that's the world. But from the top, Kevin and I have worked both on the technology side and on the community side so that we keep as much positivity going as long as we can. And that's everything from doing machine learning and natural language processing that hides offensive comments to actually putting out positive messages through the community.
It's been interesting, though. We had to make a philosophical judgement along the lines of 'who owns the comment section underneath your photos and videos'? On one hand, it's free speech because they're public spaces. But Kevin and I both had this perspective that when you put yourself out there, you put something out in the world and that comment thread is kind of yours. It's people coming into your space, so your house, your rules.
What about more video or high definition video? We're told endlessly that video is taking over. Will we see more video options or high definition video on Instagram soon?
MK: It's a good question. Our toe-dip into longer video is the fact that you can now keep your Stories around for 24 hours. It's actually the first time that videos of longer than a minute have been on Instagram, period. We're learning from that to see what kind of things people do.
What we have right now is a minute. If we introduce longer video, we have to make it fit into the flow of Instagram in a way that makes sense. I think what might point the way is the people who use video today on Instagram. I meet these digital creators who are producing video for Instagram and they'll often do a short cut for their Instagram feed or for Stories and point to a longer video. Often that lives on other platforms because you just can't post them on Instagram. But the idea of a teaser plus the full piece of content, if you were interested in it, might be a future piece.
Instagram is arguably the biggest platform for celebrity social media influencers, some of whom are getting heat for not declaring commercial interests. What's your perspective?
MK: I think the enforcement comes from agencies. I'm not familiar with the situation in Europe as much but in the US, the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] is really starting to talk to these influencers and say 'hey, you need to be very transparent'. We intend to help them be transparent in the way they need to be. We piloted branded content tools over the summer and we're now rolling them out.
But the nice thing about Instagram is its self-selectedness. If somebody goes too overboard and is too commercial, people will just unfollow. I think that becomes a self-regulating thing. It'll be interesting for other marketers who will notice that certain over-the-top accounts didn't get as much reach or likes or engagement.