Hitting the Books: The story behind Instagram’s most famous filter

No Filter cover art large

Simon & Schuster

From NO FILTER: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier. Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Frier. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

The founders took over a whiteboard in one of the Dogpatch Labs conference rooms and had a brainstorming session that would serve as the foundation for their entire leadership philosophy: to ask first what problem they were solving, and then to try and solve it in the simplest way possible.

Krieger and Systrom started the exercise by making a list of the top three things people liked about Burbn. One was Plans, the feature where people could say where they were going so friends could join them. Another was photos. The third was a tool to win meaningless virtual prizes for your activity, which was mostly a gimmick to get people to log back in.

Not everybody needed plans or prizes. Systrom circled “photos.” Photos, they decided, were ubiquitous, useful to everybody, not just young city dwellers.

“There’s something around photos,” Kevin [Systrom] said. His iPhone 3G took terrible pictures, but it was only the beginning of that technology. “I think there will be an inflection point where people don’t carry around point-and-shoots anymore, they’re just going to carry around these phones.”

Everyone with a smartphone would be an amateur photographer, if they wanted to be.

So if photos were the killer feature of the app they should build, what were the main opportunities? On the whiteboard, Systrom and Krieger brainstormed three of the top problems to solve. One, images always took forever to load on 3G cellular networks. Two, people were often embarrassed to share their low-quality phone snaps, since phones weren’t nearly as good as digital cameras. Three, it was annoying to have to post photos in many different places. What if they made a social network that came with an option to deliver your photos to Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr all at once? Playing nice with the new social giants would be easier than competing with them. Instead of having to build a network from scratch, the app could just piggyback off already-established communities.

“All right,” Systrom said. “Let’s focus on photos, and on solving these three problems.” They would make it an app for iPhone only, since Krieger was better at those. Systrom’s argument to Dorsey, that the trendy HTML5 coding language would be a helpful differentiator in the marketplace, turned out to be wrong. They would have to make the app useful first, and add Android later, if they were lucky enough to become that popular.

Their first prototype was named Scotch, a relative to bourbon. It allowed people to swipe through photos horizontally and tap to like them, similar to a Tinder before its time. They used it for a few days before going back to the Burbn idea, doubting their instincts. And then they tried a new concept that would allow people to scroll through photos vertically, showing the most recent post first, like Twitter.

All of the photos would use as few pixels as possible, so that they would load quickly, helping solve problem number one—only 306 pixels across, the minimum required to display a photo on an iPhone with 7-pixel borders on each side. The photos would be square, giving users the same creative constraint for photography as Systrom’s teacher in Florence gave him. It was similar to how Twitter only let people tweet in 140-character bursts. That would help solve, but not fully solve, problem number two.

There were two different kinds of social networks one could build— the Facebook kind, where people become mutual friends with each other, or the Twitter kind, where people follow others they don’t necessarily know. They thought the latter would be more fun for photos, because then people could follow based on interests, not just friendship.

Displaying “Followers” and “Following” at the top of the app, the way Twitter did, made it just competitive enough that people would need to come back to the app and check their progress. People could also “like” something, appending a heart, similar to Facebook’s thumbs-up. Liking was much easier on this new app, because you could do it by double tapping on an entire photo instead of looking for a small button to click. And unlike on Twitter and Facebook, nobody on this new app needed to come up with anything clever to say. They simply had to post a photo of what they were seeing around them.

If Systrom and Krieger wanted to fully copy Twitter’s concepts, it would be obvious, at this point, to add a reshare button, to help content go viral like the retweet did. But the founders hesitated. If what people were sharing on this app was photography, would it make sense to allow them to share other people’s art and experiences under their own names? Maybe. But in the interest of starting simple, they decided not to think about it until post-launch.

They picked a logo—a version of a white Polaroid camera. But what to call it? The vowel-less alcohol theme was getting to be too cute. Something like “Whsky” wouldn’t necessarily explain what the app was for. So they tabled the discussion, calling it Codename.

Soon after, Systrom and the girlfriend who would become his wife, Nicole Schuetz, whom he’d met at Stanford, went on a short vacation to a village in Baja California Sur, Mexico, called Todos Santos, with picturesque white sand beaches and cobblestone streets. During one of their ocean walks, she warned him that she probably wouldn’t be using his new app. None of her smartphone photos were ever good—not as good as their friend Hochmuth’s were, at least.

“You know what he does to those photos, right?” Systrom said.

“He just takes good photos,” she said.

“No, no, he puts them through filter apps,” Systrom explained. Phone cameras produced blurry images that were badly lit. It was like everyone who was buying a smartphone was getting the digital equivalent of the tiny plastic camera Systrom used in Florence. The filter apps allowed users to take an approach similar to that of Systrom’s professor, altering photos after they were captured to make them look more artsy. You didn’t have to actually be a good photographer. Hipstamatic, with which you could make your photos look oversaturated, blurred, or hipster vintage, would be named Apple’s app of the year in 2010. Camera+, another editing app, was another one of the most popular.

“Well, you guys should probably have filters too,” Schuetz said.

Systrom realized she was right. If people were going to filter their photos anyway, might as well have them do it right within the app, competition be damned.

Back at the hotel, he researched online about how to code filters. He played around on Photoshop to create the style he wanted—some heavy shadow and contrast, as well as some shading around the edges of the image for a vignette effect. Then, sitting on one of the outdoor lounge chairs with a beer beside him and his laptop open, he set about writing it into reality.

He called the filter X-Pro II, a nod to the analog photo development technique called cross-processing, in which photographers intentionally use a chemical meant for a different type of film.

Soon after, he tested his work on a photo he took of a sandy-colored dog he came across in front of a taco stand. The dog is looking up at Schuetz, whose sandaled foot appears in the corner of the shot. And that, on July 16, 2010, was the first-ever photo posted on the app that would become Instagram.

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