The two men behind Instagram do not have shares in Kim Kardashian’s ass. Or in any other part of the world’s most famous Instagrammer. “Not at all!” they protest, when I ask. Oh, come on! They shake their heads some more. They must, at least, have a favourite picture of their best customer?
“I think you’re talking to the wrong guys,” Kevin Systrom replies. But he does admit: “Kim and I did once get a selfie together.”
I can’t think of Instagram without thinking of Kardashian. The American reality-TV star has raised the selfie to an art form, invented belfies (bum selfies), and her family has so successfully taken over the social networking photo site that she and her sisters — Kendall, Khloé, Kylie and Kourtney — are all in the world’s top 11 most popular Instagram users. Still, you get the impression that Systrom and Mike Krieger, the guys who invented the photo-sharing service, wish she wasn’t the first thing Instagram brought to mind.
I meet Systrom and Krieger at Instagram’s offices in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley. Facebook bought Instagram for $1bn in 2012, so it now has an office on the social networking giant’s campus. It looks like an adult Disneyland, with a cupcake shop, a bike-repair place, a dry cleaner’s, a Mexican restaurant, a barbecue restaurant and a mini In-N-Out Burger. The vibe is cool enough for them to be playing the Killers in the canteen, but the army of geeks working there are dressed in normcore. I spot Sheryl Sandberg taking a walking meeting around the central quad they call Hacker Square. In one corner stands the firm’s founder Mark Zuckerberg’s glass-windowed office, where he can look out on his empire like a watchman in a panopticon.
Instagram’s own digs have the standing desks and beanbags you would expect in any West Coast tech company, as well as an anti-gravity-simulating photo booth, where furniture hangs upside down from the ceiling, and a giant camera piñata that you don’t. On the walls are pictures of some of the team’s favourite Instagram posts.
The company now has more than 200m monthly active users. Some 65m photographs are posted on the site each day. Its most popular users, Kardashian and the Canadian singer Justin Bieber, have more than 20m followers each, but it is as well known for its legions of hipster fans, posting nauseating gold-filtered feeds of their lives.
A recent article in the American online magazine Slate claimed that Instagram’s envy-inducing qualities made it the most depressing social media site. It has been accused of killing privacy, making us liars who edit our online lives (leaving the bad stuff out), censoring women and spreading terrorist propaganda. Still, love it or revile it, Instagram is ubiquitous. The San Francisco hotel I stay in has its own Instagram account; you can buy a “Keep Calm and Instagram” T-shirt; on the city streets I hear people saying, “Have you Instagrammed that?” It has joined the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook as the only Silicon Valley giants to become verbs.
But if you want to understand how Instagram was conceived, and the ambitions it held as a tiny start-up, you need to go back to where it began: a cafe called Farley’s in San Francisco. It’s where I’m sitting right now. In Potrero Hill, a quiet, pastel-painted suburb that is smarter than Haight-Ashbury but shares the same sweet smell of pot and hippie vibe. Outside, hipsters sit under red-flowering gumtrees drinking chai lattes. Inside, geeky boys — all boys — hunch over laptops, inventing apps. The setting is a gentrified juxtaposition of hippies and cash.
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