Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger founded Instagram, the all-consuming photo-sharing app that allows our every waking minute to be documented and globally distributed. Since launching in October 2010, Instagram has grown at an astronomical rate with 13 million users joining in as many months. Obama famously documented his campaign trail on it, Lady Gaga posts pictures of her latest transformation and Burberry captures backstage action before the catwalk show. Through conveying the emotion of a personalised photo album, this app caught the attention of the social networking industry and, although the deal remains under review, Facebook recently acquired the company for $1 billion. Naomi Bikis caught up with Krieger over the phone recently and he offered insights into the company's background, ethics and future.
Naomi Bikis How did you and Kevin meet?
Mike Krieger We met at a Stanford reunion. I remember thinking it was really cool that he had interned with the Twitter guys when they were still Odeo, and I was just starting to use it more. Then after graduating, on the weekends I would often go to coffee shops to work on side projects. Kevin at the time was working on Burbn - the predecessor to Instagram. We would meet at these coffee shops and trade tips. It became clear we were both of the same entrepreneurial mindset so he invited me to join him as co-founder.
NB Tell me about developing Instagram, particularly the vintage filters?
MK Our initial product was Burbn and it could do many things. It could host photos and videos, check in, and make plans - a ball of features. We put it out there and had a couple of thousand people use it. People started posting photos and we noticed the images that got a lot of success were ones that had been altered because the iPhone camera at the time wasn't that good. Kevin had also studied in Italy and was exposed to analogue photography. He was really embracing the accidental and spontaneous moments that a vintage camera brings. So we put our heads together to develop Instagram.
NB You've experienced incredible success, not least with the Facebook deal. Does that come with a sense of responsibility now that you have all this power?
MK I think the responsibility comes from feeling like we're incredibly lucky. There are very few entrepreneurs that have the chance to build something that is used by over 80 million people. It's mind blowing that we've had this resonance with people. We felt like that even early on. That we've been given the reins to this crazy moving vehicle and you wake up in the morning thinking "It's my duty not to screw this up".
NB You made a stand in April against people who were using it to promote self-harm or eating disorders. How much does that activity weigh on you?
MK We have people saying things like, "I love this product" and "I want to organise a meet up in my city". We had an Insta-meet in Nepal that I thought was the coolest thing ever. So there are positive aspects but also the negative. It's interesting when you have a platform with so many different people and the best you can do is set the tone of what your media can take. Then just be receptive to feedback from the community. Like, "These are the things that we enjoy doing, this should be okay, and this isn't." But that tone setting happens early on and is hard to change afterwards. It is nothing formal, it's not like the product is going to say "No you cannot do this". It is more about observing behaviour - what's good, what's appropriate, and what's not.
NB Did you ever intend or imagine that you would influence how people communicate?
MK That's the biggest compliment we ever receive on Instagram. Clive Thompson, who writes for Wired, said it had changed how he viewed Manhattan. Where previously he wouldn't notice things, there were now things he wanted to capture. If we impact on people being more aware of their surroundings and including their friends who might be across town or across the world, then we have accomplished something good.
NB What about the attraction to Instagram from politicians and influential figures. Do you think we could get to a point where opinion polls are being based on the number of likes an Instagram photo received?
MK I remember when Obama joined, and I wondered what the comments would be like on his photos; generally they're pretty positive. Instagram isn't really built for long format political debates. I think it is just interesting to say, "Oh, who is on the campaign trail" and you can like it, and it's not necessarily a political endorsement as much as "Here's the man behind the power."
NB We've had many ideas emerging of where technology is heading with Google's Eric Schmitz saying that children are going to have either two states: online or asleep. Then Zuckerberg declaring, "The age of privacy is over". What do you think of this and where does Instagram fit?
MK There is this great article, "As We May Think" exploring what it may be like to experience technology in the next 100 years. It was written in 1945 by Vannevar Bush. He imagined this device that every child is given at birth that lets everybody else communicate with them. One of my favourite quotes from it is: "And if you call them or try to communicate with them and they don't answer then you will know that they are dead." He sort of predicted how progressive the cell phone would be. But I think the biggest impact that we have in that sort of narrative is when you see somebody you haven't seen for a while but you're still connected through Instagram. You end up having this conversation like, "How was that ice cream place yesterday?" That's a unique phenomenon. I can only imagine this technology and this awareness being even more pervasive in the coming years. Eventually we will have to find a boundary as to what we are willing to share.
NB Where do you want to push the social aspects of the app now?
MK I've always been interested in helping folks discover people to share their lives with on Instagram. I'd like to jump in and say, "Who are the best photographers in London? Who has the most interesting life?" and zoom in on it. I always try and think of a product in terms of what science fiction idea you are bringing to life with your product. It's like you can teleport a little bit with Instagram. So I'm really excited about helping people discover things internationally. When my cousin got married in Brazil I couldn't be at the wedding. But I could watch her come down the aisle through all these photographs people were taking.
Our community team has also started doing these blogs where we will take something that is happening right now and surface the Instagram photos that are taken there.
NB I saw a cartoon recently about how people use Instagram. It starts with a girl holding her cat trying to position it to take the perfect photo and rolls through the hours of the day as she's still trying to capture it. A lot of us use Instagram like that trying to orchestrate these sections of our lives...
MK Right! It's an old social science principle that in observing the moment you're changing it. That's also true of Instagram. Like, "Look at this spontaneous photo", but they don't know how long it took to take.
NB How do you remain ahead of the game when a company like MySpace, who were so successful, gets trumped by Facebook?
MK I was talking to someone recently who worked there when they were huge. He said one of the biggest problems was that it was built on technology that didn't allow things to happen fast. They perpetually always felt behind. That really resonated as a cautionary tale, and it is something I think about when I hire people and when I build technology. Fashions change and people pick up and then abandon products. You can only have so much control over that, but you always need to keep giving people reasons to come back and improve the experience. §