Which is the most harmful social media platform? Facebook’s attention-grabbing and data-mining is unprecedented, and it hosted anti-Rohingya propaganda with devastating consequences. Fake news spread by WhatsApp group chats has led to mob killings in India. But Instagram has an arguably more pernicious cultural impact, and—as Sarah Frier writes in No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram— it’s changing our entire way of life.
Cafés, galleries, and tourist attractions have become mere selfie backdrops, visited to be photographed at rather than experienced. As Frier notes, savvy businesses capitalise on this by changing “the way they design their spaces and how they market their products, adjusting their strategies to cater to the new visual way we communicate, to be worthy of photographing for Instagram.”
Instagram’s square frame is like the pool that captivated Narcissus. Instagram influencers post daily semi-naked selfies, and Instagram is a world of endless vacations, flawless bodies, and ideal homes. As Frier writes, “Instagram has made us not only more expressive but also more self-conscious and performative.” Whereas traditional advertising is aspirational, the picture-perfect lifestyles self-promoted on Instagram are absolutely unattainable.
Instagram’s founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, initially resisted commercialisation, though after Facebook bought the company they began running ads to placate Mark Zuckerberg. But most advertising on Instagram is more insidious and ambiguous: what Frier calls “this thriving new economy of influence. As Instagram grew, so did the set of people willing to take money in exchange for posting about their outfits, vacations, or beauty routines, choosing their “favorite” brands with financial incentive to do so.”
Zuckerberg’s cooperation with the book extended only to a two-sentence email, though Frier did interview Systrom and Krieger. Zuckerberg comes across as the villain of the piece, though this may be because his perspective is missing. Once under the Facebook umbrella, Instagram was pressured to increase revenue. When it achieved this, by crossing previous red lines on user privacy and design integrity, it was regarded by Zuckerberg as an internal threat to be subjugated. (Inevitably, Systrom and Krieger resigned in 2018, just as the founders of other Facebook acquisitions—WhatsApp and Oculus—had done earlier that year.)
In the UK, No Filter is subtitled The Inside Story of How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity and Our Culture. In her preface, Frier describes the book as “an effort to bring you the definitive inside story of Instagram.” That effort was certainly successful, and No Filter stands alongside Facebook: The Inside Story, The Facebook Effect, and Hatching Twitter as an essential account of the creation and consequences of social media.