No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram w/ Sarah Frier

May 25, 2020
By Robin Kim, PRSA-SV Board Member and Ruder Finn Practice Head, Global Technology & Innovation
No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram w/ Sarah Frier

Sarah Frier, Bloomberg tech reporter and author of No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, pulled no punches in her May 22, 2020 #FridayForum opening salvo: “When one becomes conscious of how performance is measured on social platforms and why, we rethink what we value and how we behave.” This rethink has never been more prescient than now, as digital communications have become the only means of maintaining connections with others during the pandemic.

“Facebook and Twitter present themselves as neutral platforms, that they are just a reflection of humanity, but Instagram was never like that,” said Sarah. “Instagram realized that it had this impact on us, and that they had the power to make people famous and promote certain kinds of behavior.” She referred to Instagram’s human curators as kingmakers, “who pull the levers of our culture.”

Instagram Doesn’t Measure Connection

Sarah also noted what Instagram doesn’t measure: connection, such as the amount of time people spend on the app, or the number of people with whom we interact. In addition, measurement creates challenges for stopping bad behavior, such as trafficking, the absence of which is tough to track. Changes in metrics create other shifts too. When Instagram removed the “Like” count, Facebook prompted users to switch their personal accounts to business accounts, resulting in more users self-identifying as chefs, DJs and other professions. Finally, new applications for artificial intelligence, which recommend who to follow, are biased toward existing interests versus discovery and diversity. People and brands will want to take note of all of these shifts.

When it comes to influence, however, it’s still all about the messenger. Sarah observed that a post from her mom about No Filter garnered more book sales than that of an influencer with 1M+ followers. “If you have a low follower count,” she said, “this could simply mean that you didn’t cheat to get there, or play the game, or maybe the algorithm just isn’t working for you.”

The pandemic has made people less performative and more focused on connection, with more comedy, motivational posts, sharing, and messaging (versus posting). Sarah is tracking whether this behavior will turn into a divide as the opening of cities and economies create differences between those able to revert to “experience economy” behavior, versus those who still shelter at home. She also noted, “With every crisis, there is an opportunity.  Instagram founders started with a constraint, the square photo. Twitter began with a limit of 140 characters. We’re seeing a huge increase in creativity created by the constraint of staying at home.”

Social Media Platforms & 2020 Presidential Election

Sarah believes the 2020 presidential election will see social platforms become even more powerful. Her most recent article highlights Snapchat’s initiative to get out the youth vote, a service that is usually performed by registering students on campus, but which is now impeded as campuses remain online only. In-person rallies will also be diminished in favor of online engagement. With the Trump campaign currently leveraging Snapchat better than Biden, the implications of these shifts will have profound consequences in November and beyond.

Sarah’s final advice is to think big and small when it comes to the way we value relationships in a society influenced by social media. Instagram built individual relationships with celebrities and business partners, asking each of them what problem they were trying to solve and how Instagram could help. Facebook by contrast was built to reach millions of followers. Friday’s discussion was an insight on the humanity of these leaders, and our own, both as people and professional communicators.

You can watch the replay of our #FridayForum with Sarah Frier here.

Join us for our next Friday Forum, happening this week on May 29, 2020 at 11 AM PT/2 PM ET

Frontline Comms & Public Health Lessons w/ UNICEF USA CMO, Shelly Diamond

It takes a master communicator to mobilize comms and coordinate real-time response across 190 countries. Now try doing it during a global pandemic! Join us for this week’s #FridayForum to hear how UNICEF USA  CMO Shelley Diamond accomplishes this Herculean task. Along with controlling misinformation, managing multi-stakeholder engagement, supporting corporate partnerships, building advocacy, and much more.

•To join using Zoom, register on Eventbrite for your link.

• To join on FaceBook Live, go to

UNICEF saves more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organization on the planet. Governments around the world often ask UNICEF USA to serve as the lead coordinating body for multi-stakeholder efforts on the ground. As CMO, Shelley Diamond must ensure that every group can work as efficiently as possible. With her extensive experience marketing global brands and businesses, Shelley is well equipped to champion this global NGO brand in the US and beyond.

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