Last year was a big year for Instagram.
The company that could perhaps be credited for the invention of the selfie introduced a raft of updates last year to its app that included a feed rank, Instagram Stories, live video and ephemeral messaging that were largely the product of a wake-up call for management to recapture what the app sought to do from the start.
“Initially our mission was to capture and share the world’s moments. It explained what we did, but it didn’t explain why it mattered,” said Instagram founder and chief executive officer Kevin Systrom during a talk at the Girlboss Rally held over the weekend in downtown Los Angeles. “Every great mission in the world should explain what value you bring to the world.…Why do you use Instagram? Why do you take that [picture] and why do you share it? It’s because, generally, you want to grow closer to someone or some people. Why do you follow people? It’s because they inspire you….Instagram brings you closer to people.”
Systrom sat on stage with Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, whose start-up company Girlboss Media threw the inaugural Girlboss Rally on Saturday, as he spoke before a crowd of mostly Millennials snapping photos and posting to the app he originally called Bourbon some six-and-a-half years ago. Facebook acquired the company in 2012 for about $1 billion and the company went from 13 employees at its start to about 600 today with 600 million users now on the app.
Instagram over the years evolved and became a place where users began posting highly edited photos rather than instant, off-the-cuff snaps that included both the highs and lows — or sometimes banal — points of someone’s days. That was the initial point when Bourbon became what Instagram is today. That pivot was spawned by Systrom’s now wife, Nicole, who made the point she would be intimidated to post photos on the app because she wasn’t a professional and didn’t have access to filters. The light bulb went off in Systrom’s head and filters were added, which has since helped up the photo skills of just about every user, giving them the confidence to post.
“That was a pivotal moment for the company and I’m glad I married [Nicole],” Systrom said.
Instagram Stories, for example, now allows users to post videos of some of the more uninteresting, spontaneous occurrences in their daily lives, while the original feed can be for what some would say are the highlights or the best of the bunch as images go.
“If we kept doing what we were doing Day One, we would not be alive today because the moment of relevance for any company is a very, very short window,” Systrom said. “I learned that the hard way because I woke up one day — and I’m a staunch advocate of not changing the product and keeping things simple — but I looked around and I was like ‘Oh, that metric’s down’ and ‘That country’s not looking all that healthy.’ And I realized we needed to make a handful of pretty dramatic changes.”
The change to ranking people’s feeds rather than showing them posts chronologically was not met with open arms by users, but it was meant to bring them closer to the posts and updates from those in their circles of family and actual friends so they were more engaged with those posts and thus more inclined to use Instagram. That’s helped boost people’s use of the app, Systrom said.
“We launched Stories and everyone [said] ‘You guys copied Snapchat. Oh, I hate this.’ But now over 150 million people use it every single day and they love it and it’s crazy,” Systrom said. “So that’s part of leadership, knowing when you have to make dramatic changes. At the same time, you bring your users along by explaining to them why and you invest your heart in the product so that it’s great. You don’t break the product for them; you make it better for them. Sometimes they don’t agree with you in the short run. Hopefully they agree with you in the long run. If they didn’t agree with us I’m not sure we’d be sitting here today.”