September 22, 2020
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Curiouser and curiouser. That’s the only way to describe the trans-Pacific food fight over TikTok, the insanely popular, Chinese-owned short video app.
The saga has taken new twists and turns this week. President Trump, after vowing to ban TikTok on privacy and national security grounds, appeared to offer his blessing to a deal brokered by his Treasury Secretary to sell a stake in the company to a coalition of American investors led by Oracle Corp. and Walmart. But TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, and Oracle have said different things about who’d own how much of the company, and how its data and technology would be managed.
Trump now says he won’t approve any deal that doesn’t leave Americans with majority ownership and control—a prospect Beijing has said it can’t abide. As I write, it’s not clear the deal is real.
For designers, though, possibly the most intriguing aspect of the Tik Tok tug-of-war is the report, first floated in the New York Times, that the leading candidate for CEO of the restructured entity is Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom.
Phillip Faraone—Getty Images for The Wall Street Journal and WSJ. Magazine
Systrom and Stanford classmate Mike Krieger launched Instagram in 2010. Two years later, Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire the photo-sharing app which, at the time, had 13 employees and no revenue.
That price turned out to be a bargain. Systrom stayed on as CEO on the understanding that Instagram would retain operational independence. Over the next six years, monthly users surged to more than a billion, and the platform emerged as a key component of Facebook’s social media dominance. In crucial market segments—including younger users and key influencers in technology and media—Instagram proved a more popular platform than Facebook itself.
But Systrom and Krieger abruptly resigned from Instagram in September 2018. It has been widely reported that they clashed with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over Instagram’s autonomy and Facebook’s growth strategies. One source of tension was that Facebook seemed to be diverting users away from Instagram to its main app where it could charge more for advertisements. Organizational issues also rankled, as Zuckerberg began to delegate oversight of Instagram to Facebook loyalists, creating a new layer of management between himself and the Instagram co-founders.
And the two founders had fundamentally different ideas about design. Since college, Systrom has been a photo buff and an aesthete, not just a tech wizard. He says he drew inspiration for Instagram’s design ethos from the radical simplicity of a Holga camera. And yet, as Wired reported, while Systrom was on paternity leave in August 2018, Facebook forced Instagram to install a location-tracking service, the kind of intrusive feature Systrom disdained, and added a “hamburger button” Instagram developers considered a hallmark of lazy design.
Just as Systrom and Krieger departed Instagram, TikTok became available in the U.S. It now claims more than 100 million U.S. users, has been downloaded globally more than 2 billion times, and emerged as one of Facebook’s biggest competitors.
It’s far from clear that Systrom, now 36 and with an estimated net worth of $1.8 billion, will see much upside to assuming the reins of a company at the center of political controversy and ultimately beholden to a Chinese founder, an American enterprise software giant, and a sprawling global supermarket chain. But it is interesting to contemplate his design decisions should he accept the challenge.
TikTok, as Wired pointed out last year, is a “brilliant design nightmare”—an endless scroll of 15-second videos that seem to play at random, with hard-to-read fonts, and a jumble of non-intuitive icons. As London-based design expert Cennyd Bowles told the magazine, TikTok “just contravenes everything I’ve been taught and everything I practiced in my design career to date.” Moreover, any developers contend that TikTok, even if it doesn’t pose a serious threat to national security, collects far more data from users in a far more invasive way than Facebook.
Would Systrom be able to steer the app out of political controversy, address critics’ privacy concerns, and keep its shareholders happy, all while preserving the quirkiness that users seem to love? If he takes the job, it will be a fascinating high-wire act.
More design news below!