Given that he is almost single-handedly responsible for the selfie-obsessed culture in which we currently live, Kevin Systrom is remarkably… well, unflash. The 32-year old, who created photo sharing app Instagram and is worth an estimated one billion dollars, wears jeans and a shirt under a v-neck jumper. He is neatly turned out, polite, a little dorky looking, even. If I passed him on the street, I would probably assume he worked in a branch of Gap—but then, such is the Silicon Valley look.
Systrom started Instagram in 2010, when people still occasionally looked up from their phones to talk to other human beings: with its array of stylised filters that made even bad pictures look as if they had been taken by Mario Testino, the app soon changed that.
Before long, people were sucking in cheekbones and waving their phones on sticks in the air to get the perfect self-portrait. They weren’t drinking coffee—they were photographing it. You could track the time around the world from people’s images of sunrises and sunsets. #Captions #came #to #be #written #entirely #in #hashtags.
Today, Instagram has over 500 million users; around 95 million photos and videos are uploaded each day generating over four billion likes. It is used by celebrities, politicians and even the Pope—though he is yet to post a selfie—as a way to converse with the public. In the summer, Forbes described the company as “the grand slam that’s driving Facebook’s future.”
But Instagram has also become a byword for 21st century narcissism. Social commentators blame it on a rise in anxiety and depression amongst young people; this week a study by Edinburgh University’s Moray House School of Education found that social media was creating a “hyper-critical” environment for school pupils who were living under the same amount of scrutiny as celebrities. “Instacurity”, whereby you crave the sleekly edited life of Instagram celebrities and the endless likes they ensnare, has become a thing.
This is not news to Systrom, the son of a marketing executive and a company vice-president from Massachusetts. He is ever-conscious of the responsibility that comes with running a major social media platform: earlier this year, Instagram introduced a tool that enables users to remove comments containing words they find “unkind” or “inappropriate”. Yet after being trialled by pop singer Taylor Swift, it led to complaints about online censorship and the continued indulgence of the so-called ‘Snowflake generation’.
Instagram are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and Systrom is largely unapologetic for the effect his billion dollar idea has had on society. He believes—unsurprisingly—that it is actually a power for good, a sharing community that transcends all barriers. “I think one of the cool things about Instagram is that you connect globally. You may not necessarily speak the same language, but we all have the common language of an image.”
He came up with Instagram after winning a place on Stanford University’s illustrious start-up course, taking the concept of human brains being mostly visual and running with it. He was offered a job by Mark Zuckerberg, who wanted him to develop the photo sharing side of his new website (then called The Facebook) but turned it down to work part time in a coffee shop instead. He would later serve Zuckerberg lattes.
After graduation he worked at Google before creating a prototype of a new social media platform with numerous features; feedback showed that people didn’t want a complicated product, so he scaled it down to photo-sharing. Instagram was born. It had one million users within a month, and after two years he sold it to Zuckerberg for $1 billion (£802m).
Yet his creation isn’t merely a tool for sharing picture perfect brunches. “There is something [about Instagram] that is deeper than photography, deeper than art…Before the written word, before the printing press, before books, we always communicated in a visual manner. I joke that emojis are just futuristic versions of hieroglyphics.
“Instagram is the next generation communication platform. So of course you can communicate wonderful things like a beautiful sunset, like a great latte, but you can also communicate very serious things such as the destruction of Aleppo.”
The weight of his role would give others chills, but Systrom’s relentlessly upbeat American manner means he sees it as a positive. “The reason I have done a big push in the last couple of months [on cleaning up the app] is because there aren’t many people who have the ability to make a difference… It’s less about trying to be at the centre of everyone’s lives while also being ethically minded, and more, like, ‘well since we are at the centre of everyone’s lives we get to do all this amazing stuff to help people’.”
He spends a great deal of time talking to advocacy groups about how to improve the service for users. They recently launched a tool whereby users can anonymously report friends whose posts contain worrying content about their mental health; the user will then be sent links to helpful resources. It’s not perfect, but the truth is that for many of the social media savvy, Instagram is an infinitely more pleasant place to be than the bear pit of Twitter or rabble-rousing Facebook.
“I think one of the cool things about Instagram is that you connect globally. You may not necessarily speak the same language, but we all have the common language of an image.”
Has social media created an abusive atmosphere, I ask, or have humans always been this way inclined? “I think a lot about how people act differently when they’re anonymous. If anything I think our job is to make people feel individually connected, for them to feel a sense of community.” Instagram, he says, is all about “building human relationships.”
He does not see the selfie as the great destroyer of civilised culture. “If you walk through the National Gallery halls, what do you see? Portrait after portrait. Self portraits have been around forever. It just so happens now that everybody’s an artist and everybody has the ability to capture a self-portrait at any moment.” Does he think of them as an art form, then? “I do.”
When we meet, Systrom has just celebrated his first wedding anniversary to wife Nicole Schuetz, the CEO of an investment firm. I ask him if they have rules on phone use. He laughs. “Oh. Um. We call it ‘device time’. I mean, it’s a joke when we call it that. I run a company that runs on this” he says, whipping out his iPhone. The night before he left his phone in his hotel room by mistake.
“The entire time I was fearful that I was missing a message. I mean, it’s important to step away from the device every now and then. But I love to capture my memories with my phone, whether it’s the trees or when I discover a cool coffee shop.
“I suppose I could keep a journal, but…” He smiles. “Sometimes, taking a photo is just better.”
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