Interning at the podcasting company Odeo, a 22-year-old Systrom sat next to a 29-year-old engineer, Jack Dorsey. Improbably, this N.Y.U. 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, Systrom thought. Nobody is going to use this thing”) just as he had Facebook. Frier at first blames Systrom’s conservative temperament for his pretty bad judgment, 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 V.C. investors pushed Systrom to find a co-founder, he and 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 sensationalizing 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.
If there is a villain in this tale, it is Zuckerberg. After Systrom sells Instagram to Facebook in 2012 for an (at the time) astonishing $1 billion, Zuckerberg comes off as controlling and cruel, maniacally focused on growth at the expense of all else. Systrom stayed on as Instagram’s chief executive, but Frier outlines the ways in which their new owners began to undermine the founders, highlighting the clash in corporate cultures. Instagram has no reshare button by design (“all your posts were yours. That was what the founders wanted”); Zuckerberg wanted constant viral growth. But with this growth came the new worry that Instagram’s success would “cannibalize” Facebook’s, so Zuckerberg began to downplay Systrom’s brand alongside Facebook’s news feed. More upsetting, when Systrom tried to build protections against abusive comments, the ex-Facebook engineers on his team, reluctant to weed out opportunities for higher engagement, proposed controls that would be prohibitively hard to find and use. “Thanks but no thanks” was Systrom’s response. These portions of the book read as a kind of sequel to the movie “The Social Network,” an update on the sort of man that young protagonist grew up to be.