I was not excited to review a book about Instagram. Sure, I’m glued to the app; right now those pictures of dogs and babies and my friends’ home-cooking are my main source of quiet pleasure in these miserable times. But it didn’t feel like the moment for a list of reasons — as so many books in this genre are — of why this app was bad for me, and for the world. Then I started reading. Written by the San Francisco-based Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier, No Filter has a deceptively simple goal: “To bring you the definitive inside story of Instagram,” a photo-sharing app one billion of us use every single month. But in fact — and happily — this is a book about Silicon Valley. It is a record of a single app moving through the place. And in making that record, in hewing closely to Instagram and its founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, while giving new texture to the Valley’s major players, like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, Ms Frier tells the story of how that place works. Like many tech founders, Mr Systrom hailed from a frat at Stanford, but he always saw himself as more artistic than the other ambitious engineers. Instead of dropping out of school to accept Mr Zuckerberg’s offer, in 2005, to join his start-up called TheFacebook.com, Mr Systrom studied abroad in Florence. He’d always liked nice things (espresso done just right, fine clothes, old bourbon), but his photography professor made him give up his fancy camera for a simpler device, one that only shot blurry images in square frames. The experience taught him to embrace imperfection; that “just because something is more technically complex doesn’t mean it’s better.”
Interning at the podcasting company Odeo, a 22-year-old Systrom sat next to a 29-year-old engineer, Jack Dorsey. Improbably, this NYU dropout “with an anarchist tattoo and a nose ring” befriended him. Odeo eventually gave rise to Twitter, an idea he’d dismissed (“They’re crazy, Mr Systrom thought. Nobody is going to use this thing”) just as he had Facebook. Ms Frier at first blames Mr Systrom’s conservative temperament for his pretty bad judgement, but eventually concludes nobody else knew any better than he did. “Silicon Valley looked like it was run by geniuses,” she writes, but “from the inside, it was clear that everyone was vulnerable, just like he was, just figuring it out as they went along.” After a stint writing marketing copy at Google (which he found so deeply boring he used the office espresso machines to make latte art), in 2009 he built Burbn, an app for people to find their friends and go out. After VC investors pushed Mr Systrom to find a co-founder, he and Mr Krieger — a former Stanford classmate and a more skilled engineer — soon turned their focus solely to photo sharing, a feature Burbn lacked. Most cellphone cameras were pretty crummy, so they would provide filters to make the pictures prettier. In 2010, that app became Instagram. The book manages to be cleareyed and objective about the founders and their many flaws, without sensationalising or oversimplifying — a hard balance to strike in tech coverage right now.
Their backdrops are hilarious: Basically all of the corporate drama in the book happens around fire pits, at themed bars or twee espresso spots, in hot tubs and at Lake Tahoe. But mostly fire pits.