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A decade of Instagram

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Ten years ago today, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger released Instagram into the world. Less than a year and a half later, Facebook acquired it, in what is widely regarded as one of the shrewdest acquisitions in the history of the tech industry. It is now one of the most popular apps in the world and has thrived during the pandemic. But regulators and competitors continue to nip at its heels — TikTok has reportedly now surpassed it as the second-most popular app for teens, after Snapchat — and there’s no telling what it might look like another decade from now.

That’s one reason why the company is investing heavily in messaging features at the moment, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told me last week: they make the app sticky. The company also brought back some of its classic app icons as a birthday treat as well as a new map view for looking at archived stories.

But as Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier notes today, some big questions are swirling around the app as it hits double digits. She asks:

How many users does Instagram have? And how much revenue does it bring in for parent Facebook Inc.? When I asked, Instagram declined to comment.

Facebook isn’t the first tech giant to withhold basic information about a prized acquisition; Google began reporting YouTube revenue in February of this year — more than 13 years after buying the company.

But as Frier notes, with antitrust investigations underway — and the House Judiciary subcommittee’s report on that subject landing yesterday — hiding Instagram’s true size and value has real consequences. It’s hard to consider effective regulations for a platform when basic details about it are still unknown.

Frier is one of my favorite people to talk to about Instagram and the tech world generally. Her 2020 history of Instagram, No Filter, is the definitive account of the app’s rise. To mark its big day, I called her to talk about how Instagram has changed over the years, whether the app has become too cluttered, and whether she would rather live in an alternate universe in which Instagram had never sold.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

When you open Instagram today, which parts of the app feel basically the same as they did a decade ago?

The main feed is still very similar to how the founders imagined it. It’s still this place where we portray our lives as more curated and polished than they actually are — which is something that we learned to do because of Instagram’s filters in the early days.

But the app has gotten so much more complicated — and I think it’s becoming more and more Facebook-like.

Of all the changes made to Instagram since then, which do you think has had the biggest consequences?

The crucial change was the addition of Stories. We usually think about it in terms of its significance from a competitive standpoint — like Instagram versus Snapchat. I think it’s actually more significant from the standpoint of Instagram recognizing that the immense pressure that people have to perform on Instagram, and portray their lives a certain way, is actually bad for growth. The anxiety that goes into deciding whether something is Instagrammable actually made people post less.

Since they introduced Stories, they’ve taken away some of that pressure. That’s what really brought them down their path to a billion users and the ensuing conflicts with Facebook over whether they would cannibalize Facebook’s success.

With the addition of Reels, shopping, and other features, is Instagram at risk of getting too complicated?

The reason Instagram was so successful in the early days is it was so simple. And not just simple, but the founders really felt that it was important that they solve a problem for a user. And Instagram Stories was solving a problem for a user — that problem of pressure. But when you look at Reels, what problem does that solve for a user? It really solves a problem for Facebook’s business. And when you start solving problems for your business as opposed to for the people who use your product, it gets really confusing for people.

Which alternate universe would you prefer to live in, out of the following:

A. Kevin and Mikey never sell the company, take it public, and continue to challenge Facebook as an independent entity

B. Kevin and Mikey sell to Twitter, Instagram overtakes Twitter’s core product in popularity, and we get a social network duopoly with Facebook

C. Kevin and Mikey sell to Facebook, retain their relative autonomy to this very day, and become its co-CEOs once the Federal Trade Commission forces Facebook to spin it out

I mean, I think A would be the most interesting.

By being a smaller part of Facebook, Instagram does not get the attention to its problems that we’ve given to Facebook. As a separate entity, we would recognize more of the blind spots that Instagram has. And I do think that in the next 10 years, we will have a similar reckoning for Instagram. But right now, we simply don’t have as much visibility into how it works.

Finally, Kevin Systrom was reported to have been in talks for the TikTok CEO job. Wouldn’t it have been amazing if he announced on Tuesday that he had gotten the job?

That would be quite dramatic. But I don’t think Kevin’s going to do it because the thing he hated the most about how his time at Facebook ended was the politics: the jockeying for resources, the time spent getting approval for things with an overlord who might have different interests. I feel like TikTok would just be that all over again. You’re CEO without actually being CEO — and that’s a really frustrating place to be.

This column was co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter about big tech and democracy.

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The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda’s adventures continue in brand new look at season two

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The Mandalorian’s second season is just days away from premiering on Disney Plus, and a new trailer for the Star Wars series teases what fans can expect.

Most of the trailer focused on the Mando’s continued adventures with the Child, including an ominous moment where he’s warned that the worlds he’s trying to visit are no places for a child. Much like executive producers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni teased in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the show looks like it will tackle more substantial narrative lines than we got in the first season.

Picking up essentially where the last season left off, The Mandalorian’s second season will explore a much “larger story in the world,” according to Favreau. While many of the episodes in the first season could stand on their own as one-offs, the second season will see storylines intertwine even more, Favreau and Filoni told Entertainment Weekly ahead of the second season’s debut.

“Everything gets bigger, the stakes get higher, but also the personal story between the Child and the Mandalorian develops in a way I think people will enjoy,” Filoni said.

With The Mandalorian returning to Disney Plus, it’s an exciting time for Star Wars fans — but it’s also an important moment for the House of Mouse. The Mandalorian launched alongside Disney Plus in November 2019, and since then, Disney Plus has suffered from a lack of original, exciting programming that will bring in and keep subscribers happy. Part of that is because the pandemic made production nearly impossible on shows like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier until recently, but the fact remains: Disney needs something to get people talking again.

Executives are hoping that The Mandalorian’s second season, and its adorable star the Child — aka Baby Yoda — will do for Disney Plus in 2020 what the show did in 2019. If everything goes according to plan, The Mandalorian will roll into WandaVision, Marvel Studios’ next big show, which may roll into another big title. Disney Plus needs that continuous momentum to keep people around, especially as one year free offers from partners like Verizon start to end and Disney will start charging many customers who aren’t paying.

Regardless of whether The Mandalorian helps Disney amass and keep more subscribers, it’s exciting to have more new Star Wars back in our lives. The Mandalorian returns on October 30th.

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Call of Duty’s Halloween event has a Zombie royale and horror crossovers

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Activision today dropped the trailer for its Call of Duty Halloween event: The Haunting of Verdansk. We’re getting a few new game modes, a bunch of horror themed packs, and rewards, both in Modern Warfare and Warzone.

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Warzone players will get to experience Verdansk at night, and it’ll come withmore than a few Halloween-themed frights” — and I’d be content with that, to be honest. But Modern Warfare‘s also getting a fright-themed coat of paint. My favorite new addition is that, if you get three kills in a single life, your operator’s head will turn into a jack-o-lantern. Get ten kills, and it’ll light on fire. MW also gets two new modes: Snipers Only, which is just what it sounds like, and Onslaught-er, which involves finding and seizing a Juggernaut suit that spawns on the map and doing something with it — I imagine I’ll find out if/when I ever get that far.

CoD appears to be taking a leaf from Mortal Kombat‘s book, including some classic horror movie villains to spice up the roster: namely, Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Billy the Puppet from the Saw series. Both will get appropriate skins and content packs, as will a character called Dr. Karlov. I won’t pretend it’s not darned spooky to see some familiar faces in the trailer, and it appears Billy and Leatherface will both pop in Haunted Verdansk, if the above trailer is anything to go by.

And of course, there are zombies — it wouldn’t be a Call of Duty spook-fest without zombies. In this case, we’ll have Zombie BR, a limited-time mode in which dead players are resurrected as zombies, with potential to turn human if they slay enough of their fellow players. You can’t wield weapons as a zombie, but you can run, punch, and generally overwhelm with numbers, as zombies are wont to do.

The Haunting of Verdansk starts on October 20 and runs through November 3. Activision will also apparently drop some more themed bundles during the event, including one inspired by Dia de los Muertos.

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ShopUp raises $22.5 million to digitize millions of mom-and-pop shops in Bangladesh

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A startup that is aiming to digitize millions of neighborhood stores in Bangladesh just raised the country’s largest Series A financing round.

Dhaka-headquartered ShopUp said on Tuesday it has raised $22.5 million in a round co-led by Sequoia Capital India and Flourish Ventures. For both the venture firms, this is the first time they are backing a Bangladeshi startup. Veon Ventures, Speedinvest, and Lonsdale Capital also participated in the four-year-old ShopUp’s Series A financing round. ShopUp has raised about $28 million to date.

Like its neighboring nation, India, more than 95% of all retail in Bangladesh goes through neighborhood stores in the country. There are about 4.5 million such mom-and-pop stores in the country and the vast majority of them have no digital presence.

ShopUp is attempting to change that. It has built what it calls a full-stack business-to-business commerce platform. It provides three core services to neighborhood stores: a wholesale marketplace to secure inventory, logistics (including last mile delivery to customers), and working capital, explained Afeef Zaman, co-founder and chief executive of ShopUp​, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Image Credits: ShopUp

These small shops are facing a number of challenges. They are not getting inventory on time or enough inventory and they are paying more than what they should, said Zaman. And for these businesses, more than 73% (PDF) of all their sales rely on credit instead of cash or digital payments, creating a massive liquidity crunch. So most of these businesses are in dire need of working capital.

Zaman declined to reveal how many mom-and-pop shops today use ShopUp, but claimed that the platform assumes a clear lead in its category in the country. That lead has widened amid the global pandemic as more physical shops explore digital offerings to stay afloat, he said.

The number of neighborhood shops transacting weekly on the ShopUp platform grew by 8.5 times between April and August this year, he said. The pandemic also helped ShopUp engage with e-commerce players to deliver items for them.

“Sequoia India has been a strong supporter of the company since it was part of the first Surge cohort in early 2019 and it’s been exciting to see the company become a trailblazer facilitating digital transformation in Bangladesh,” said ​Klaus Wang, VP, Sequoia Capital, in a statement.

The startup has no intention to become an e-commerce platform like Amazon that directly engages with consumers, Zaman said. E-commerce is still in its nascent stage in Bangladesh. Amazon has yet to enter the country and increasingly Facebook is filling that role.

ShopUp sees immense opportunity in serving neighborhood stores, he said. The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to deepen its partnerships with manufacturers and expand its tech infrastructure.

It opened an office in Bengaluru earlier this year to hire local tech talent in the nation. Indian e-commerce platform Voonik merged with ShopUp this year and both of its co-founders have joined the Bangladeshi startup. Zaman said the startup will hire more engineering talent in India.

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