If you read only one book on social media, make it Sarah Frier’s No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram (327 pages, Simon & Schuster, April 2020). Frier does an excellent job of recounting the rise of social media and its impact on American and world society. As a technology reporter at Bloomberg News, she gives the inside, blow-by-blow track on Instagram, using it as a lens through which to view the entire social media landscape, including Facebook, Snapchat, etc.
This highly readable book tells the story of social media better than any newspaper or magazine story, piecing together news and commentary as well as significant original reporting. As such it should be required reading for anyone interested in the impact of social media on the larger culture. That includes members of Congress seeking to regulate the tech industry, which has been immensely profitable, though at a high social and economic cost, especially for newspapers and magazines, which have struggled to earn advertising dollars in the digital environment.
This timely account reveals the critical meetings, conversations, personal tastes, and events that led to the creation of Instagram and its sale to Facebook. It’s especially strong on the personalities and motivation of the founders such as Kevin Systrom, an aesthete and lover of fine bourbon, and tech whiz Mike Krieger, who launched the photo sharing app in 2010. They eventually sold it to Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion in stock. The book dishes interesting tidbits about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who excels at Risk and feeds his guests meat he has hunted himself.
Though authoritative, this is not a dry, business text, but a suspenseful story, going much deeper than other accounts, which usually exhibit either a left-leaning “capitalism is bad” or a right-leaning, “capitalism is good” framework that oversimplifies the subject and provides few constructive suggestions for reform.
Critics of the industry should read the book to get an understanding of how it really works and how it could be sensibly regulated. Who can forget Sen. Orrin Hatch’s naïve questioning of Zuckerberg about how Facebook makes money if it gives away the service for free? “Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg said, a line that showed up on T-shirts.
Frier adds her own dry comment, in dealing with the criticism that Facebook marginalizes conservative voices. “Facebook was indeed biased, not against conservatives, but in favor of showing people whatever would encourage them to spend more time on the social network.”
The book ends with an analysis of the acquisition of Instagram and what it meant for the company. She doesn’t speculate about whether Facebook should be sued for antitrust violations or the impacts of social media on American politics and culture, but serves up many morsels for thinking about those pressing issues.