Instagram’s founders leave Facebook to rediscover their creativity

25 Sep 2018

Instagram app. Image: Dennizn/Shutterstock

Instagram founders leave Facebook amid reports of tension with CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

If you ask people today what social media apps they prefer, there are really only two that can be considered cool at present: Instagram and Snapchat. Then follows Facebook, often vying with Twitter.

At the height of their success, it has emerged that Instagram’s two co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, have announced their resignation from Facebook, saying: “We’re planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again.”

Instagram, the jewel in the Facebook crown, was acquired by the latter in 2012 for $1bn. It has 1bn active monthly users and is one of the fastest-growing revenue generators in the Facebook stable.

The co-founders’ departure comes amid reported tensions and frustrations with Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. Reports indicate that Systrom and Krieger have disagreed with Zuckerberg over product changes, including changes to comments and how posts are shared between the photo-sharing app and Facebook.

In recent months, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum also left the embrace of Facebook, allegedly over his fears about attempts to weaken WhatsApp’s encryption. His co-founder, Brian Acton, left Facebook last year and was vocal in endorsing the #DeleteFacebook campaign that came in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, whereby a political marketing firm tied to the Trump (US) and Leave (UK) campaigns was able to game Facebook to get access to 87m users’ data.

WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19bn and is also one of the hottest properties in the Facebook empire.

Has it become too hot in the Facebook kitchen?

Instagram founders Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom in front of their team.

Instagram founders Mike Krieger (left) and Kevin Systrom in front of their team. Image: Instagram

The departure of Instagram’s co-founders at the pinnacle of their success raises questions about the future of Facebook in a year in which it has been beset by privacy scandals and fears of slowing growth.

Systrom (34) and Krieger (32) built Instagram on the back of a software project Systrom had been working on, a location app called Burbn. In 2010, Instagram was born to foster what they correctly identified as a rising trend in smartphone photography. Photo-sharing app Flickr, which was acquired by Yahoo, failed to spot this trend while a slew of copycat apps failed to match the Instagram founders’ dedication and passion. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before Facebook came a-knocking and negotiations are understood to have been handled by Zuckerberg personally.

Systrom and Krieger have remained steadfast to their ethos that Instagram will always be about capturing content on a smartphone and turning ordinary people into avid photographers. A recent move into group video chats and long-form video remained true to this ethos in terms of sticking to the vertical camera position of most smartphone users.

As per usual in these departures, Systrom and Krieger painted a picture of perfect bonhomie. “Mike and I are grateful for the last eight years at Instagram and six years with the Facebook team. We’ve grown from 13 people to over a thousand with offices around the world, all while building products used and loved by a community of over 1bn. We’re now ready for our next chapter.

“We’re planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again. 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. We remain excited for the future of Instagram and Facebook in the coming years as we transition from leaders to two users in a billion. We look forward to watching what these innovative and extraordinary companies do next.”

Zuckerberg said he “really enjoyed” working with the pair. “Kevin and Mike are extraordinary product leaders and Instagram reflects their combined creative talents. I’ve learned a lot working with them for the past six years and have really enjoyed it. I wish them all the best and I’m looking forward to seeing what they build next.”

The move into long-form video felt like a last gasp of creativity by Instagram’s founders as the app tousled with Snapchat. The rivalry has been fierce, with Instagram’s foray into 24-hour posts a blatant copy of Snapchat’s Stories feature.

With 1bn users, Instagram seems to be winning that fight as Snapchat corrects itself after a disastrous, unpopular redesign that sent daily user numbers plummeting.

What should be a moment of victory for Instagram feels strangely hollow, though, especially as the app’s chief operating officer, Marne Levine, has also stepped down in recent weeks.

At the pinnacle of Instagram’s success, the next question is, who is going to steer the ship with the passion and adherence to values that matter to users?

Instagram app. Image: Dennizn/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years