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Instagram’s founders have left. What does that mean for the app’s future?

By Hanna Kozlowska

In a surprise move, the two founders of Instagram announced on Monday (Sept. 24) that they were stepping down, and leaving Facebook, which bought their photo sharing app in 2012. With Facebook’s aging user base and storm of controversies, Instagram has increasingly been seen as the future of the company. With its two visionaries gone, Instagram’s own future is thrown into question.

In their announcement, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger said they were “planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again.” The tone of the letter, its timing, and accounts from insider sources reported in several outlets hint that Systrom and Krieger left because of tensions with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s leadership. The initial announcement notably doesn’t even mention Zuckerberg’s name (a later Instagram post does give a shout out to Zuckerberg, along with other top executives).

As Instagram keeps winning, it’s likely Facebook’s leadership wants the main app to share in the glory, leading them to bring the photo-sharing app under tighter control. Reporting from Recode’s Kurt Wagner says Instagram insiders felt as though Facebook had increasingly been meddling with their product, and that Systrom and Krieger were growing frustrated.

Instagram recently hit 1 billion users. Many of them still describe it as “fun”—something Facebook hasn’t been able to claim for a long time. It’s hugely popular among teens, whereas Facebook’s young users are disappearing (with some exceptions), as quickly as their moms comment on every photo ever posted. It has largely (although certainly not entirely) avoided Facebook’s woes: constant partisan bickering, abusive behavior, and the unending barrage of fake news.

What helped Instagram avoid this fate was the app’s character: it’s hard to share links, or re-share content, which curbs the spread of inflammatory or false items. There have been rumors recently that Instagram is testing a re-sharing feature, something that Systrom long resisted. Will we see this kind of functionality with new leadership, significantly altering user behavior and, some fear, ruining the platform

Some early reports suggest that the tension was over pressure to more tightly integrate Instagram and Facebook, erasing the boundaries between the two. Facebook, for example, recently removed the label that indicated a photo was shared to Facebook from Instagram. It also started testing notifications within Instagram designed to redirect people back to Facebook. We could see Facebook have a more prominent presence in the app in the future, and vice versa. 

At the same time, while grappling with all of its recent crises and slowing user growth, Facebook has been mentioning Instagram more and more on its earnings calls, emphasizing the smaller app’s potential. Analysts have tended to agree. Advertising on the hugely popular Instagram stories is still in its early days, and it hasn’t even started on IGTV, the long-form video app (although the latter has had a rocky start). Instagram is investing in shopping features, and even reportedly building a standalone app specifically for this purpose.

Knowing Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg’s relentless quest for growth, we could also see more ads packed into every corner of Instagram. The pursuit to monetize WhatsApp was in part what drove away Jan Koum, the platform’s founder, who left Facebook earlier this year. For now, this doesn’t appear to be a center of tension with Instagram, but it’s notable that Facebook’s marquee acquisitions have seen their leaders leave when talk of monetization ramped up or started taking center stage. That’s when Zuckerberg and Sandberg come in, and their vision takes over.

Of course, without that drive from Facebook’s leadership, Instagram wouldn’t be the behemoth it is today. Facebook’s social graph allowed it to reach 1 billion users, and its powerful ad machine to achieve its enormous value—recently estimated to be $100 billion. One of the people who helped Facebook become a powerhouse, the former head of News Feed Adam Mosseri, is expected to take over at Instagram. Mosseri is a longtime Zuckerberg lieutenant, suggesting a further “Facebook-ification” of Instagram.

Part of the tension between the leadership of Facebook and Instagram was competition for ad dollars and users’ attention. Facebook is still ahead in terms of ad prices, but Instagram is commanding more and more user attention, and that’s something that’s hard to share.