June 25, 2024, 2:46

Instagram’s co-founder explains why he’s starting over

Instagram’s co-founder explains why he’s starting over

Shirin Ghaffary
is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom thinks that the social media industry is ready for something new.

Major social media platforms have become better than ever at capturing our attention by optimizing their algorithms to entertain us with viral videos and funny memes. But while people are consuming more content, they’re often posting less, according to Systrom.

“People have flocked to services like TikTok or Twitter or Facebook less to connect with their friends … and more and more to be entertained,” Systrom said.

He added, “I think people want value and entertainment, but they don’t want to be in the middle of a digital fistfight.”

Systrom, along with fellow Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, sold Instagram to Facebook for $1 billion in 2012 and continued working at the company until 2018. But now, Systrom thinks there’s an opening for a new kind of engaging app that can better inform the public.

That’s why in January, Systrom and Krieger launched Artifact, a personalized social news reader — although it’s not just for news, Systrom says — that shows you high-quality written content, recommended to you based on AI. It’s been called a “TikTok for text” because, much like the popular video-sharing app, it’s designed to predict what to show you based on detailed insights about what you’re looking at, what your interests are, and what you’re clicking on.

Systrom hopes Artifact can help solve a major problem: how to help writers reach interested readers at a time when the online advertising industry is facing a slump, Facebook is backing away from news, and AI-generated content is threatening to upend the news industry and blur the line further between what’s fake and real.

“IT feels like smart people should insert themselves into existential crises for the world — and hopefully we qualify as relatively intelligent, having done something in this world before on social,” said Systrom.

Part of Systrom’s plan, he says, could be to eventually allow independent publishers to post on the platform, rather than just major media organizations.

“The internet is this wonderful place where potentially anyone can be a publisher just like anyone can be a creator on TikTok or a photographer on Instagram,” Systrom said. “And it feels like that opportunity is untapped.”

But the business of written words — especially news articles — is a notoriously difficult one compared to, say, funny meme videos. Artifact will face tough competition from apps like TikTok to hold our attention. Newspaper articles and magazine features “may not make you laugh as much” as video, Systrom said, but the text medium is “enormous in terms of its effect on society.” That’s why he’s trying to figure out a way to make it work.

Systrom and his team will also have to figure out how to avoid repeating the mistakes of social media’s past when it comes to letting harmful or misleading content go unchecked. Artifact has a content moderation policy that bans things like hate speech. The company says that isn’t too much of a problem so far because the app hand-selects which publishers are shared on the platform, and they select for high quality. But Artifact recently started allowing comments, which opens it up for more content moderation problems. One way to mitigate that is the app assigns users Reddit-inspired “reputation scores” based in part on how much other users upvote someone’s comments.

In a far-ranging interview, Systrom reflected on his time working in the social media industry, saying that one of the things he was “always questioning” was whether he was “providing value to people.” Now, Systrom is hoping that Artifact will help bring meaningful articles to people’s attention, whether that’s from independent writers or major publications.

“When people engage with the service, are they learning something new? Are they being more informed?” Systrom said. “And the second time around … hopefully, by us doing our job right, people will learn more about the world, and they’ll be more informed citizens.”

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You were one of the pioneers of early social media. What do you make of the social media landscape right now?

I think that there are two forces.

On the corporate side, companies have gotten very good at figuring out how to get your time. They’ve been optimized by engagement algorithms. Basically the single goal is: how do you spend more time on the service? And unsurprisingly, that has led to the type of content that optimizes the system being perhaps more entertaining, more inflammatory, and basically just more engaging. And I think what you see is people have flocked to services like TikTok or Twitter or Facebook less to connect with their friends and more and more to be entertained. Basically, all of these things have moved to one giant entertainment network.

And on the other side, I think consumers are starting to raise their eyebrows, because I think they want two things, I think they want value, and I think they want stability. The value is: I’m spending all this time, what am I getting? Do I get a laugh? Am I learning something new about the world? Am I seeing something I wouldn’t have otherwise? And the stability part is interesting, probably more so in the last five years or so.

I think people want value and entertainment, but they don’t want to be in the middle of a digital fistfight. They don’t want to be the target of someone else’s unbounded anger, or they don’t want to put themselves out there, take a risk to try to make a funny video, and get put down. And to me, the side effects of that are that it’s largely driven people into “consumer mode” rather than “producer mode.” So people are consuming vast amounts but are producing far less than they used to. They want the value but they don’t want to necessarily interact with a bunch of other people. They don’t want to put themselves out there and be taken down with a bunch of replies and tweets. And by the way, the people that are immune to this — like if you think of this as a system, if you start out with everyone just kind of like producing, the people that are immune to other people’s feedback and other people’s attacks, they’re usually not the people you want producing content because they’re the ones that will produce with impunity and chat with impunity. And I think that leads to a certain type of content dominating these networks.

It also means, on the consumption side, the algorithms are fairly focused on driving time spent. People who get really good at optimizing videos for time spent are the ones that get the most distribution, and those are the creators. You have to be a professional to be that good. You can’t just be anybody.

So anyway, wrapping up those two forces — the drive toward extreme engagement optimization, and on the consumer side, wanting more value and wanting stability while you extract that value — leads there to be a bunch of people who are trying to do new and interesting things.

Also, just like the context around this is you have a very large company, Meta, who has been extremely successful dealing with disruptions on the outside. You have an international player in ByteDance, trying to figure out if they can succeed in the United States and maintain a business in the United States long term. You also have Twitter, which is now run by a very different person than it used to be run by with very different values and ways of working.

So I can’t tell you exactly what will happen. But I guess my rule of thumb in business is out of turbulence, out of disruption, new things rise. And I think that AI kind of coming into its own, rather than being just this buzzword we all use — that turbulence plus AI feels like a bunch of really interesting things are about to happen. That’s my long answer.

Can you talk a little bit more about why people are burned out these days on Instagram or Facebook or some of the older social media platforms? Have these platforms gone too far?

I’m not sure they’ve gone too far. I think they’ve just become too successful. You know, if you hang out in a small group of people, you’re likely to be much more talkative and much more risk-taking: You’ll show someone your photos, you’ll talk to them about what you’re doing. The second you grow your audience to a certain size, it becomes difficult to be yourself.

I remember there was this moment at Instagram where we had lots of college-bound high schoolers basically either making their accounts private or going under pseudonyms because they were worried about college admissions teams being able to see them, people worried about their bosses seeing them on Instagram.

“I think people want value and entertainment, but they don’t want to be in the middle of a digital fistfight”

What makes you successful is also the thing that will end up being your downfall. Which is that you’re successful and now everyone’s on the app, and anyone can see what you’re doing. And you need to manage that growth over time. It’s not because Facebook and Instagram aren’t wonderful products. They are. It’s simply because they are so large now that you are on display, and it’s very hard to feel like you can be yourself when you’re on display to over a billion people.

I think that’s part of why there’s this natural cycle in startups that attack social problems: People always want the next smallest thing. It’s this never-ending cycle of people just wanting smaller spaces to be themselves. As a large network, you don’t have a choice but to focus on influencers and businesses, because those are the only people and accounts that are willing to continue posting at that level. They aren’t interested in posting on you when you’re small, but they are increasingly interested in posting on you as you get bigger because it provides business value. But it does mean the community changes a lot. And it means the user experience changes a lot. And you just have to be mindful of that as you grow.

I do think a lot of people feel like they don’t want to post on Facebook or Instagram because there’s this expectation that it has to be really professional. Or because, like you’re saying, there’s too much fighting going on, and they don’t want to get in the crosshairs. But do you think that TikTok challenged that a little bit?

What I love about what ByteDance did with TikTok was that they made it what I call a content meritocracy. Content’s great? It will get a lot of distribution. And that’s the first time, I think, in social media that that had been true. In the past it was if, in general, you can build a following — whether that’s through how famous you are or how great you do at marketing yourself — you will get distribution for your content, period. And sure, plus or minus, the feed ranking will do its job. But generally speaking, the only way to be big is to have been big already, or to grow. TikTok kind of upended that and said, “Well, you know, it matters less about the person who produced the content. It’s the content that actually matters.”

So what we’re going to do is millions of small little tests with content to see what sticks, and then we’re gonna promote whatever sticks to the next level, and then promote whatever sticks to the next next level, and so on and so forth. And what’s cool about that is you get this meritocracy, where if you create great content, you will be distributed, and I believe that actually exists not just in videos, but it exists in written content, whether that’s blogs or articles in a large newspaper publisher. Basically, I think content should win, meaning great content should be distributed, regardless of how well-known or big the producer is. And I think that, in and of itself, is an opportunity across many different mediums.

News is a tough nut to crack. It’s a notoriously difficult business from a revenue perspective. And then it’s also difficult in terms of the political baggage that can come with it. So with Artifact, why venture into this unwieldy territory rather than just making a fun video or meme-sharing app?

Well, first, I’ll just challenge the notion that we’re just in news. A lot of written content on the web I wouldn’t characterize as news so much as information.

Some of my favorite blogs to follow are modernist architecture blogs, and they have nothing to do with news. It’s just beautiful photos and really interesting design. I love to cook, and I would not consider any recipe news per se. Let’s see, what else do I love? I love travel — at least the idea of travel. I feel like I’ve been working too hard to travel. But the idea of travel is really neat to me, and I live vicariously through all these amazing travel bloggers and folks that produce, you know, top 10 lists of hotels around the world or whatever.

So there’s a lot out there that doesn’t qualify as news, but I will agree it qualifies as written information — or at least articles, more broadly. It is true that in general, video content can be more engaging and more viral. And it’s also harder to produce. It’s not clear to me if it’s as informative.

For instance, I obviously used to live in the world of images and video. And one of the things I always found lacking was, am I providing value to people? Like when people engage with the service, are they learning something new? Are they being more informed? And so the second time around — hopefully by us doing our job right — people will learn more about the world, and they’ll be more informed citizens.

It feels like smart people should insert themselves into existential crises for the world. And hopefully we qualify as relatively intelligent having done something in this world before on social. So really, it comes down to the fact that I think there’s an untapped opportunity in lots of content out there. And then secondly, I think it provides more value to the user if we do our jobs right. I’m not claiming that text itself can be as entertaining as a viral video, as you described. But in general, that doesn’t mean that it will be a bad business. It just means that there’s different characteristics and can be potentially enormous in terms of its effect on society. It may not make you laugh as much. But I think it could be really important.

I have to agree with you, otherwise I wouldn’t be in this extremely stressful and relatively low-paying business.

I also think that we should have a world where people do investigate, people do question, people do publish. And right now that is relatively limited. It’s limited to people with jobs at places that can provide distribution. And to me, in the long run, I think that we need to find more ways of just anyone producing.

I think Substack is super interesting because it allows people to have a platform to self-publish. And I think that we will always have large established publishers because the world needs those for the editorial oversight, the resources to do very expensive investigative journalism, etc. But also it feels to me like the internet is this wonderful place where potentially anyone can be a publisher, just like anyone can be a creator on TikTok or photographer on Instagram. And it feels like that opportunity is untapped. I’m not saying we are attacking that opportunity currently, but it certainly seems that that’s the direction that the world is heading.

You bring up Substack. Who do you see as your competitors in this space? Is it Substack? Is it Twitter? Is it TikTok?

It’s interesting, people ask if we compete with Substack. I actually hope to be a wonderful partner to Substack. They have these amazing writers who want distribution, and we have this user base that wants content, and we have the targeting to be able to help relatively undiscovered writers find their audience. And we’re still fairly small. I mean, we started a few months ago, but eventually, the idea is that we can be the distribution for anyone that wants to self-publish, no matter what platform you choose, whether it’s Substack or one of the others. I think that’s the goal long term. So I don’t see us competing directly with any of those people. If anything, I hope to be a great partner.

I do believe where you discover content, generally, includes the companies that I think compete for the use case that we provide. Of course, there are many apps that are like Artifact. There’s Apple News, there’s SmartNews, there’s NewsBreak. There’s lots of stuff out there that will feed you yet another local story of, I don’t know, a car crash or a fire. A lot of the content tends to be fairly general and fairly clickbaity on a lot of these platforms. And I think what we’re trying to do is provide a very high-quality experience for the people who use us, which tend to be very tech-driven, AI-interested users.

“You don’t need to build in a massively viral sharing loop where everyone spams their contacts and everything”

We ask people to select interests when they sign up. AI was selected by some crazy percentage of people that signed up. And I think that’s because we talked a lot about how we use artificial intelligence to help with matching content and people. And as a side effect, I think what has happened is the data that the algorithm has been trained on is particularly good at the tech stuff. And we’re doubling down on that because we see that as a particular opportunity — versus trying to be good at yet another service that feeds you the headlines in politics today, which I think you can get anywhere or better from some of the major publishers, honestly.

Artifact has been described as like a TikTok for news, or maybe you would say for articles. How is it TikTok-like with regard to recommending content based on using AI?

There are two things. One is you try to model people’s interests. You try to figure out what someone is interested in. They are interested in space exploration. They’re interested in cryptocurrencies. They’re interested in a very specific type of Android. That allows you to narrow down the enormous corpus of data that we get every day to a subset of articles that may or may not be relevant to that person. But then you have the problem of saying, “Well, okay, we know these are relevant, but are they good? And what’s cool about this?” I think similar to TikTok is just keeping track of whether or not someone else has engaged with that article in the past allows you to very quickly come to a conclusion of whether or not something is engaging or not.

You’ve recently added some features that could help the writers of this content better understand their audience. What value does Artifact bring to writers, or is Artifact maybe going to pay writers one day?

Are we paying anyone yet? No, we don’t make any money, and we don’t pay anyone yet. But I can absolutely imagine a future where writers use this to understand their audience and connect with their audience more clearly or more efficiently. And eventually there will likely be a place for independent publishing as well. Although we’re so small right now, that doesn’t really make much sense. And right now, I basically think that we’re trying to provide value and just understanding what’s working, what’s not. That’s what we’re focused on.

There are a lot of journalists who are fed up with Twitter right now. Do you think that this presents an opportunity for Artifact?

I assume that you use Twitter not for distributing links to your articles and telling people to go read your new article on X, Y, or Z, but rather to stay in the know, one, and two, to have interesting back-and-forth conversations with people about the topics of the day.

And, yeah, Artifact has some of those. But we’re too small to have that conversation at large. In fact, Post News and BlueSky are as well. All of these things are too small to really have that critical mass right now. And I think it remains to be seen if any of them will also do a good job at that job of having the conversation of the day with other like-minded people.

But in terms of discovering what’s happening in real time, that might actually be a lot easier to compete with. We’ll have to see if we’re good enough. But I believe there’s an opening there. I think there’s less of an opening in terms of having conversations with people in your industry only because, as I’ve seen it, social networks are just really sticky. I mean, name the number of controversies that all these big companies have gone through — whether it’s Facebook or Snap or anyone — people will say they’re shuttering their account. And then they’re back the next week.

I think history would tell us that these networks are a lot stickier than you’d imagine. So if you’re going to do something to compete in this world, you need to do something fairly different to win. And that’s part of why we’re starting with the article-first version of this and the extreme personalization version of this. Because we believe that is fundamentally different than how you consume content on these other networks.

What do you call Artifact? A social media app? Or are you not putting it in that bucket?

Well, we’ve got comments now, which is pretty exciting. I mean, it’s small because we launched — what, it was like a week and a half ago, or two — it’s all a blur at this point. But it’s definitely social in that respect. And one of the things I didn’t mention that I should have mentioned is having comments does differentiate us in the long term. Because we clearly have a social angle on the news and written content that I care deeply about, but I think a lot of these larger apps do not.

Is it hard to grow an app virally if you’re just catering to one very specific group, like tech enthusiasts? I guess if anyone knows a thing or two about making a viral app based on people sharing stuff they’re passionate about, it’s you, the co-founder of Instagram.

I do have the humility to know this is hard, and not show up saying that I figured it all out. But what I’ll tell you is, we rewrite the history of every one of these apps as if they were just a sensation from the beginning. All of these apps had some amount of growth, but they all started — by “all” I mean every social media app, including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter — they all started with a very specific type of person who used them initially. And only after years and years and years did they see expansion. TikTok might be the only example that grew within a few years rather than years and years and years. Nonetheless, they all had groups of people — reference groups, I’ll call them. For Instagram, it was definitely photographers and artists in the Bay Area. And it was not the app it is today.

There’s the business school book, Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read it, but it talks about beachheads, and the whole idea is you have to start specific to then get broad. But if you start broad from the beginning, you never capture enough interest. And that’s how we’re thinking about growing.

So it sounds like you’ve learned some lessons from the success of Instagram. Are there also any regrets from your time at Instagram? Any lessons you’ve learned and don’t want to do again?

I would say that we’re so small, and it’s so different. I think the lessons learned would be applicable if we get to be hundreds of millions of users. At this stage, you know, we were 13 employees when we were acquired by Facebook, and we’re seven now at Artifact. So we’re in the stage where we were so early that most of the lessons I learned from going through Instagram aren’t applicable yet.

That being said, I will say the one thing we are laser-focused on is just doing our job well. That means when you open up the app, do you get a great experience? Because I believe if you do that, the growth takes care of itself.

You don’t need to build in a massively viral sharing loop where everyone spams their contacts and everything. Yes, that can be helpful. But is that the type of app I want to build? Absolutely not. What I care about is providing value. So if it does the job well — and that is hard because personalization is not an easy science — then things will take care of themselves. So we’re just focused on being a great app and people loving it. If people love it, then good things will happen.

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Sourse: vox.com

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