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Book Review: ‘No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram’

March 16, 2020, 11:45 AM UTC

Before there were influencers, there were just a baker’s dozen of employees huddled in a small office space outfitted with Ikea furniture in San Francisco determining what was “Instagrammable.” There was no algorithm determining what was worth sharing and promoting—just a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings serving as their own tastemakers.

In No Filter (Simon & Schuster), Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier chronicles the rise of photo-sharing social network, from when it was still a location-based app named “Burbn” to the ad-driven juggernaut it is today. Given the turnover and pressure the company has experienced over the last decade—as Frier deftly streamlines from multiple interviews with some of the most high-profile executives, venture capitalists, and most-followed celebrities on Instagram—it’s remarkable the mobile app still exists in the relatively same format that made it a cult favorite with early adopting designers, photographers, and creative professionals.

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Although many words have been spilled about Facebook’s astounding purchase of Instagram (which actually came out to $715 million—not the $1 billion figure that made initial headlines), Frier goes farther back behind the scenes about the staggering deal—made only more mind-boggling when you find out just how fast and, frankly, reckless it was cobbled together over the course of a weekend—mostly over a barbecue grill in Mark Zuckerberg’s backyard.

And then there is the aftermath of the deal, starting with a virtually unreported weekend celebration for the Instagram team shortly after the deal was announced—but well before it closed—to Las Vegas in 2012, staying at the Trump International Hotel because Joshua Kushner (Jared’s brother)—who invested in Instagram late, just before the Facebook acquisition—asked his sister-in-law Ivanka to set the group up with whatever they needed.

But, contrary to the common folklore in the Valley that a successful startup’s employees usually end up tremendously wealthy after a major acquisition, that didn’t happen at Instagram. Only its founders and a few others walked away with millions. And even though Instagram was a labor of love for its earliest employees, and without the promise of vested stock to keep them around, almost all of them became disillusioned with the corporate machine that absorbed them. No Filter might be the most enrapturing book about Silicon Valley drama since Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter, but this time, instead of cofounder infighting, the battle for Instagram’s soul has far more reaching consequences for society and its relationship with technology.

A version of this article appears in the April 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Picture Not So Perfect.”

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