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Instagram’s founders don’t think breaking up Facebook will fix tech’s problems

“We live in a time where the anger against big tech has increased tenfold,” said Kevin Systrom. “That doesn’t mean that the answer is to break all of the companies up.”

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook / Mark Zuckerberg

Elizabeth Warren wants to unwind the Facebook-Instagram marriage that has turned Facebook into a $55 billion-per-year advertising behemoth.

The guys who built Instagram don’t think that’s actually a great idea.

In their first public interview together since abruptly leaving Facebook last fall, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger shared their thoughts on a number of issues at the South By Southwest conference Monday afternoon, March 11.

Do they regret selling to Facebook despite reports that their exit wasn’t exactly amicable? No.

Do they like Facebook’s idea to combine all of its messaging apps? Yes.

Do they think Facebook and Instagram need to be broken up? Not exactly.

“We live in a time where the anger against big tech has increased tenfold,” said Systrom, Instagram’s former CEO. “Now whether that’s because the property prices in your neighborhood have gone up, whether that’s because you don’t like Russian meddling in elections, whatever, there are a long list of reasons why people are angry at tech right now. Some of them I think are well founded.

“That doesn’t mean that the answer is to break all of the companies up.”

Systrom and Krieger seem to agree that breaking up tech companies doesn’t actually solve many of the problems that tech companies are creating. They want politicians to start thinking, more specifically, about what problem they actually want to solve.

“Is it about Amazon white-labeling products and selling them on Amazon? Because that is a very different problem from whether Facebook should also own Instagram, which is a really different problem than, you know, whether Apple has the right to be one App Store only,” Krieger said.

“Breaking companies up is a very specific prescription to a very specific problem,” Systrom echoed. “If you want to fix economic issues, there are ways of doing that. If you want to fix Russian meddling, there are ways of doing that. Breaking up a company doesn’t fix those specific problems.”

To be clear, that doesn’t mean Systrom thinks breaking up tech is necessarily bad. (He jokingly asked if the duo would “get our job back” if Instagram did get spun out.) Systrom just doesn’t want to see Facebook broken up for the wrong reasons.

“My fear is that something like a proposal to break up all tech is playing on everyone’s current feeling of anti-tech rather than doing what I think politicians should do, which is address real problems and give real solutions,” he said.

The hour-long interview included a number of other nuggets about the founders, who are widely believed to be two of the most successful entrepreneurs of the past decade. What might be most newsworthy, though, are the two things the interview didn’t reveal.

The first is what Krieger and Systrom plan to do next. “We’re giving ourselves the time to get curious about things again,” Krieger said.

The second is why Krieger and Systrom left Facebook so abruptly last September, a decision that shocked many of their Instagram and Facebook colleagues, and created a dramatic scrambling behind the scenes. After news of their departure leaked to the press, stories started to come out confirming the founders were upset with their eroding autonomy inside Facebook’s broader empire.

Systrom basically confirmed that, yes, the founders did lose their independence over time. “In some ways, you could have predicted that from the beginning,” he admitted. Instagram got so important to Facebook, he added, that leaving it alone just wasn’t smart business. “It got to a size where it was meaningfully important to this company.”

What he didn’t confirm, though, was what specifically happened internally that made the departure so sudden.

“That’s not a topic that I’m interested in recounting in front of everyone,” Systrom said.

The Instagram founders were also asked what they thought about Facebook’s new plan to reorient the company around private messaging, a strategy that CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled last week.

Part of that plan, Zuckerberg says, is to combine messaging services for all Facebook’s apps. That way, users could send a message from Instagram to a user on WhatsApp, for example.

“The thesis is that the more people that are available to talk with, the more useful the platform becomes. And I buy that thesis,” Systrom said. “I think the question is whether or not people who sign on to separate platforms ... want, in fact, to talk to people on different platforms.

“I can’t tell the future, so I don’t know, but bravo for making a big bet and going for it.”

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