Roula Khalaf, the FT’s editor and chair of judges, said the book tackled “two vital issues of our age: how Big Tech treats smaller rivals and how social media companies are shaping the lives of a new generation”.
Frier is a skilled reporter and an astute and sensitive cultural observer. No Filter is a vital read for anyone seeking to understand the incredible power Silicon Valley executives exercise over us, and the opaque, unpredictable and undemocratic mechanisms by which they do so. It offers a useful framework for thinking about how the tech we use changes us, and for beginning to understand what we really want from the websites we consult so frequently and so unthinkingly.
A lot of the book’s fun comes from the unlikely alliance that ensues between the awkward nerds of Instagram and the real magicians of the old showbiz industry. Systrom took to swanning around awards shows, inspiring some resentment in his crew, while Hollywood fixers and ingenious Kardashians learnt to milk his invention. Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Madonna all cameo in this story; there is even a plot to poach the Pope away from Twitter.
Sarah Frier, a reporter for Bloomberg News based in San Francisco, knows the characters and business of all the social networks, including Twitter and Snapchat, and it is rarely pretty. “Inside and outside Facebook, the story of Instagram is ultimately about the intersection of capitalism and ego - about how far people will go to protect what they built and to appear successful.” The protagonists of her story are Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram, and Zuckerberg. Both attended elite boarding schools before making their way to Silicon Valley. Both are highly competitive, but in different ways.
What the book does do well is show how the relationship between Instagram and Zuckerberg steadily broke down, with the Facebook boss presented as increasingly jealous and bitter about his acquired app’s success. The deal was that Instagram could operate almost autonomously within the Facebook brand. In Frier’s telling Zuckerberg begins to go back on his word after realising that Instagram is becoming more popular than Facebook.
Frier mulls two unintended consequences of Instagram’s transformation with lively case studies. The first is the impact on users’ mental health, with bullying rife and unattainable beauty standards pervasive. One pair of “travel influencers” meticulously research each location where they shoot, taking 500-1,000 shots before whittling them down to one, which is then Photoshopped and beautified further. “The flurry of aspirational branded posts would manipulate the masses into feeling bad about their normal lives,” Frier writes. “Instagram ended up fuelling a problem not just about truth in advertising, but about truth in life.”