Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Instagram founders say losing autonomy at Facebook meant ‘winning’

Rather than be sore about losing independence within Facebook, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom told me it was an inevitable sign of his app’s triumph. Today at South By South West, Systrom and fellow co-founder Mike Krieger sat down for their first onstage talk together since leaving Facebook in September. They discussed their superhero origin stories, authenticity on social media, looming regulation for big tech and how they’re exploring what they’ll do next. Krieger grew up hitting “view source” on websites while Systrom hacked on AOL booter programs that would kick people off instant messenger, teaching both how code could impact real people. As Instagram grew popular, Krieger described the “incredi-bad” feeling of fighting server fires and trying to keep the widely loved app online even if that meant programming in the middle of a sushi restaurant or camping retreat. He once even revived Instagram while drunk in the middle of the night, and woke up with no memory of the feat, confused about who’d fixed the problem. The former Instagram CTO implored founders not to fall into the “recruiting death spiral” where you’re too busy to recruit, which makes you busier, which makes you too busy to recruit… But thankfully, the founders were also willing to dig into some tougher topics than their scrappy startup days. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (from left) drive to Palo Alto to raise their Series A, circa January 2011 Independence vs. importance “In some ways, there being less autonomy is a function of Instagram winning. If Instagram had just been this niche photo app for photographers, we probably would be working on that app for 20 years. Instead what happened was it got better and better and better, and it improved, and it got to a size where it was meaningfully important to this company,” Systrom explained. “If this thing gets to that scale that we want it to get to which is why we’re doing this deal, the autonomy will eventually not be there as much because it’s so important. So in some ways it’s just an unavoidable thing if you’re successful. So you can choose, do you want to be unsuccessful and small and have all the autonomy in the world, or no?” AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Mike Krieger speaks onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW) Krieger followed up that “I think if you study . . . all the current companies, the ones that succeed internally eventually have become so important to the acquiring company that it’s almost irresponsible to not be thinking about what are the right models for integration. The advice I generally give is, ‘are you okay with that if you succeed?’ And if you’re not then you shouldn’t do the deal.” If the loss of autonomy can’t be avoided, they suggest selling to a rocket ship that will invest in and care for your baby rather than shift priorities. Asked if seeing his net worth ever feels surreal, Systrom said  money doesn’t make you happy and “I don’t really wake up in the morning and look at my bank account.” I noted that’s the convenient privilege of having a big one. The pair threw cold water on the idea that being forced to earn more money drove them out of the company. “I remember having this series of conversations with Mark and other folks at Facebook and they’re like ‘You guys just joined, do not worry about monetization, we’ll figure this out down the road.’ And it actually came a lot more from us saying ‘1. It’s important for us to be contributing to the overall Fb Inc . . . and 2. Each person who joins before you have ads is a person you’re going to have to introduce ads to.’ ” Systrom added that “to be clear, we were the ones pushing monetization, not the other way around, because we believed Instagram has to make money somehow. It costs a lot to run . . . We pushed hard on it so that we would be a successful unit within Facebook and I think we got to that point, which is really good.” But from 2015 to 2016, Instagram’s remaining independence fueled a reinvention of its app with non-square photos, the shift to the algorithm and the launch of Stories. On having to challenge the fundamental assumptions of a business, “You’ve got maybe a couple years of relevance when you build a product. If you don’t reinvent it every quarter or every year, then you fall out of relevance and you go away.” That last launch was inspired by wanting to offer prismatic identity where people could share non-highlights that wouldn’t haunt them. But also, Systrom admits that “Honestly a big reason why was that for a long time, people’s profiles were filled with Snapchat links and it was clear that people were trying to bridge the two products. So by bringing the two products [Feed and Stories] into one place, we gave consumers what they wanted.” Though when I asked anyone in the crowd who was still mad about the algorithm to hiss, SXSW turned into a snake pit. Regulating big tech With Systrom and Krieger gone, Facebook is moving forward with plans to more tightly integrate Instagram with Facebook and WhatsApp. That includes unifying their messaging system, which some say is designed to make Facebook’s apps harder to break up with anti-trust regulation. What does Systrom think of the integration? “The more people that are available to talk with, the more useful the platform becomes. And I buy that thesis . . . Whether or not they will in fact want to talk to people on different platforms, I can’t tell the future, so I don’t know,” Systrom said. AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Josh Constine, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom speak onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW) Krieger recommended Facebook try to prove users want that cross-app messaging before embarking on a giant engineering challenge of merging their backends. When I asked if Systrom ever had a burning desire to Instagram Direct message a WhatsApp user, he admitted “Personally, no.” But in a show of respect and solid media training, he told his former employer “Bravo for making a big bet and going for it.” Then it was time for the hardest hitting question: their thoughts on presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to regulate big tech and roll back Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram. “Do we get our job back?” Systrom joked, trying to diffuse the tension. Krieger urged more consideration of downstream externalities, and specificity on what problem a break-up fixes. He wants differentiation between regulating Facebook’s acquisitions, Amazon white-labeling and selling products and Apple’s right to run the only iOS App Store. Acquisition vs. competition “We live in a time where I think the anger against big tech has increased ten-fold — whether that’s because the property prices in your neighborhood have gone up, whether it’s because you don’t like Russian meddling in elections — there are a long list of reasons people are angry at tech right now and some of them I think are well-founded,” Systrom confirmed. “That doesn’t mean that the answer is to break all the companies up. Breaking companies up is a very specific prescription for a very specific problem. If you want to fix economic issues there are ways of doing that. If you want to fix Russian meddling there are ways of doing that. Breaking up a company doesn’t fix those problems. That doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t be broken up if they get too big and they’re monopolies and they cause problems, but being big in and of itself is not a crime.” Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas Systrom then took a jab at Warren’s tech literacy, saying “part of what’s surprised me is that generally the policy is all tech should be broken up, and that feels to me again not nuanced enough and it shows me that the understanding of the problem isn’t there. I think it’s going to take a more nuanced proposal, but my fear is that something like a proposal to break up all tech is playing on everyone’s current feeling of anti-tech rather than doing what I think politicians should do which is address real problems and give real solutions.” The two founders then gave some pretty spurious logic for why Instagram’s acquisition helped consumers. “As someone who ran the company for how many years inside of Facebook? Six? There was a lot of competition internally even and I think better ideas came out because of it. We grew both companies not just one company. It’s really hard question. What consumer was damaged because it grew to the size that it did? I think that’s a strong argument that in fact the acquisition worked out for consumers.” That ignores the fact that if Instagram and Facebook were rivals, they’d have to compete on privacy and treating their users well. Even if they inspired each other to build more engaging products, that doesn’t address where harm to consumers has been done. Krieger suggested that the acquisition actually spurred competition by making Instagram a role model. “There was a gold rush of companies being like ‘I’m going to be the Instagram of X . . . the Instagram of Audio, the Instagram of video, the Instagram of dog photos.’ You saw people start new companies and try to build them out in order to try to achieve what we’ve gotten to.” Yet no startup besides Snapchat, which had already launched, has actually grown to rival Instagram. And seeing Instagram hold its own against the Facebook empire would have likely inspired many more startups — some of which can’t find funding since investors doubt their odds against a combined Facebook and Instagram As for what’s next for the college buddies, “we’re giving ourselves the time to get curious about things again,” Krieger says. They’re still exploring so there was no big reveal about their follow-up venture. But Systrom says they built Instagram by finding the mega-trend of cameras on phones and asking what they’d want to use, “and the question is, what’s the next wave?”

Facebook deletes, and then restores, Elizabeth Warren’s ads criticizing the platform, drawing her rebuke 

Tony Romm Staff writer covering technology policy March 12 at 1:28 AM Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat vying for the presidency, didn’t have to search far and wide for ammunition in her salvo against Facebook and other technology giants. Her own campaign, she said on Monday, had become a case study in the need to curtail Facebook’s power, after the company temporarily removed her ads flaying the social networking service as anti-competitive. She used the flap to warn that it was dangerous for cyberspace to be “dominated by a single censor.” Facebook confirmed that it had briefly removed three ads sponsored by Warren’s presidential campaign that “violated our policies against use of our corporate logo.” The material was nevertheless soon restored following a report in Politico. "In the interest of allowing robust debate, we are restoring the ads,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post. Facebook declined to say how Warren’s political ads had been targeted — whether it was human reviewers or the company’s artificial intelligence tools. The service’s advertising policies ban the use of “f” or the Facebook logo in place of the word “Facebook.” The three ads in question featured an “f” in a text bubble, as well as symbols referring to Amazon and Google. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.) “Three companies have vast power over our economy and our democracy,” read the ads, which were placed on Friday. “Facebook, Amazon, and Google. We all use them. But in their rise to power, they’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field in their favor.” Warren’s presidential campaign has sponsored numerous ads on Facebook, including more than a dozen touting her plans, announced last week, to curtail the power of tech giants. “Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” the Democratic lawmaker wrote in a Medium post Friday that outlined her proposal. Her plan would appoint regulators responsible for reversing certain tech mergers and would advance legislation barring platforms from participating in their own online marketplace, as Amazon does when the e-commerce giant sells goods alongside similar offerings on its website from competitors. The most forceful approach to date, Warren’s agenda speaks to growing disaffection with Internet juggernauts once carefully courted by Democrats. It sent tremors through Silicon Valley. It’s unclear to what extent her plans will be embraced by her Democratic rivals, some of whom have similarly voiced concern about a “major monopoly problem,” as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) put it. Warren, who was the first prominent Democrat to enter the 2020 race for president, has aimed to distinguish herself in the battle of ideas. Other examples include a universal child-care plan and a wealth tax imposing an annual levy of 2 percent on Americans with more than $50 million in assets and 3 percent on those with more than $1 billion. In a pair of tweets on Monday evening, she said Facebook’s actions proved that her ideas were good ones. A Warren spokeswoman told The Post that the campaign had not leaked news about the removal of the Facebook ads but instead had been contacted about it by a reporter.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says democracy ‘has a Facebook problem’ 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) suggested that democracy in the US “has a Facebook problem” after the company pulled ads last night that called for tech giants, including Facebook, to be broken up. The ads, which were later restored, were placed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) presidential campaign over the weekend. A growing chorus of lawmakers is calling for regulators and representatives to rethink how they enforce the country’s antitrust laws, especially on big tech companies like Facebook and Google, which were formerly the golden children of the US economy. “Just because a monopoly business happens to be online, that doesn’t mean it’s good,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Facebook may have its own problems, but it’s increasingly starting to look like our society (namely, our democracy) has a Facebook problem.” Shortly after Politico first reported that the ads were taken down, Warren responded in a tweet, calling out Facebook for exhibiting the same behavior her ads were trying to call attention to. “Curious why I think FB has too much power?” she said. “Let’s start with their ability to shut down a debate over whether FB has too much power. Thanks for restoring my posts. But I want a social media marketplace that isn’t dominated by a single censor.” Facebook claimed that the ads were taken down for using the company’s branding, but the move highlighted exactly how much power the company has over public discourse — and lawmakers noticed. The ads were placed after Warren proposed a plan to break up giant tech firms on Friday. In a blog post, Warren suggested that acquisitions like Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp be spun back out into their own companies. She also proposed legislation that would bar companies like Amazon from using a platform that it operates to sell its own goods or services. Calls for competition regulation are coming from both sides of the aisle. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) has also made it his mission to question the power of Big Tech. Congressional committees with antitrust jurisdiction have begun to hold hearings to discuss changes that could be made to the current interpretation of antitrust laws, and it’s clear that the debate won’t end anytime soon.

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