Selfiesticks, Simplicity and Bourbon - Interview with Instagram Founder Kevin Systrom


Friday 11 am at the Four Seasons hotel in Munich. On the fortnight, a crowd of art-lovers and tech-aficionados came together for a DLD Salon at Kunstverein Munich. In their remarks, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom and kvm’s new director Chris Fitzpatrick were meeting on the middle ground, the intersection of compilated media and art. The current James Richard exhibition, the last one curated by former director Bart van der Heide, set the perfect framework for exploring the role of media and visual arts today. The next morning, Kevin prefers to stand on the balcony to enjoy the crispy air and the view over the city centre.

Warm-up fun fact: The initial working title of Instagram was “burbn”, hope you liked the Japanese distilleries at Les Fleurs Du Mal last night?

It was great. Initially, I didn't like bourbon but once we named the company burbn we got all these gifts from investors. So we started building a little collection in the office. It was a lot of fun. I love it. The team loves it. Responsibly, of course.

Is this an unrealised pet project that you will turn into a proper bar eventually?

No, I probably won’t open a bar. We are a little busy with running Instagram (laughing). At the same time, I actually do have a project where I partnered up with a distillery in Kentucky. They filled a barrel full of new spirit. We are aging it. And testing it a little bit over time. It is a fun pet hobby of mine.

What’s your favourite Hashtag?

My favourite Hashtag is probably “Throwback-Thursday” (#tbt). That’s because I get to see all these pictures of my co-workers when they were young kids. Even my parents embarrass me with putting my kid pictures online.

And the worst?

I am not sure there’s the worst. I think there’s plenty of great examples of hashtags I wish they didn’t exist but why don’t we leave those for a different conversation (big smile).

Sure. Are you going to free the nipple?

Oh no, that’s not our style. We get the questions around nudity a lot. What it comes down to is to keep Instagram a really safe place. Not every country functions exactly the same in terms of this subject. What we care about is that a thirteen year old has a safe and clean experience. If you want to experience the nipple, you can go to many other places for that.

Over the course of time you added a few features to the original version of Instagram. On the other hand, you maintained the simplicity really well. How do you guarantee to stay on this path, adding new features while keeping it lean?

It’s true, the core goal is always to keep it fairly simple. At the same time, there are fundamental features that we want to add over time. Features that I won’t name here. Things like video felt simple but still it was a major change in the Instagram dynamic. We really care about a consistent consumer experience but also pushing us forward on innovating.

Let me take a guess: will you be able to add sound to pictures, similar to how you can geo-tag pictures now?

Oh that’s interesting. Well, if you are looking for a job as a product manager, we are always looking for people with neat ideas. We can talk after the interview (laughs).

Lol. There’s a saying that goes: being rich on Monopoly is like being famous on Instagram. Similar to Twitter, I feel that predominantly a lot of celebrities as well as early adopters are tremendously successful on Instagram. What are the odds for the regular everybody who subscribes today?

The principal rule is to produce great and creative content. If you are taking amazing photos, or if you are funny and entertaining, Instagram is always a platform for you. I think one of the biggest projects for us in the next year is to help that those new accounts get discovered.

Talking about cultural phenomena that are based on top of the platform - the death of the paparazzi or the selfie-stick, for instance – what is the phenotypical Instagram stunt that fascinates you most?

I think the phenomenon I am most interested in is the selfie itself. Forget about the sticks, they are funny and it’s interesting to see that. But the selfie is something that didn’t really exist in the same way before Instagram. It’s awesome to see people feeling confident expressing themselves – young and old. To think that twenty to thirty years down the road, we are going to be able to look back at pictures of ourselves, at different places with friends. It’s recorded and is never going to be forgotten.

Andrian Kreye, editor in chief of the arts & culture section of SZ, ran a project which is called the history of selfies.

Oh that’s awesome! The astronaut Buzz Aldrin actually took pictures of himself in the 60ies – but they weren’t called selfies. In fact, we could look back and see what the first #selfie hashtagged photo was. That would be a fun project.

Oh yes! Yesterday you met publisher and art historian Hubert Burda, who has been looking into the iconic turn - the new frame and perspective of how we look at the world since the first browser has started the broad digital revolution.

Yes. Dr. Burda and I talked a lot about the advent of movable type that inspired revolutions like the renaissance. What we are seeing now is movable images. You can take a picture and can transport it really quickly to everywhere in the world. That is going to inspire similar types of revolution. Being able to see events happening live, on your mobile phone. What gets me excited about the next ten to twenty years is to be able to be part of that revolution.

There’s a controversial detail around that. Some argue that freezing the moment with a snapshot is upgrading the moment itself. You appreciate little things like your cup of coffee more if you uploaded a picture of it. Others argue, that you are under current stress doing so. Being always on and distracted by this “presentism” (Douglas Rushkoff) leads to a live outside of reality. Have you experienced both sentiments?

I think everyone has. Still, I believe the large majority of the value is remembering the moment. I just took all of my old iPhones and downloaded all the pictures. I scrolled back all the way to 2010 and saw pictures of what we were doing in the office when we were building Instagram initially. The value of keeping those in my archives is tremendous to me. In fact, I told myself to take way more photos, even though I am not going to post them on Instagram. Just because it’s so hard to remember what you were doing a few years ago. On this trip alone, I was recording a lot on my camera without sharing it on Instagram. This collection is the equivalent of our parents checking out that shoebox full of photos.

On this very trip, you met Karl Lagerfeld the night before his Paris fashion week défilé, and you paid a visit to the Bayern Munich squad (the goalkeeper Manuel Neuer joined Instagram immediately after that). Quite a trip! What’s the most special out of all the occasions that had happened through your work?

Meeting Karl Lagerfeld was outstanding. In the world of Instagram, one of our big values is to inspire creativity. Talking to a guy who has been inspiring creativity for years and years, to me he really is the godfather of creativity, and hearing how much he likes Instagram was really awesome personally. But sitting with Dr. Burda and learning about his view on art history, the iconic turn and how Instagram is changing the world was really special for me, too. It’s not only celebrities, it’s really inspiring and intellectual people as well.

At the intersection of arts and Instagram, it’s interesting to see how curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist or Klaus Biesenbach are using it. Others are almost genuinely dedicated to produce art for Instagram, using it like a sort of new canvas.

There’s this great book “Chaos” (James Gleick, Chaos: Making A New Science; 1987) that’s talking about building very simple systems that allow complex behaviour. I think Instagram is exactly that. We spent most of our time on the technology that allows making this happen organically. A few key building blocks. In result, some of this behaviour is people creating art on Instagram. Or in Richard Prince’s case, he’s creating art out of Instagram. At Art Basel Miami, I was on a panel with Klaus and Hans Ulrich. I think they are probably one of the most creative folks on earth and they see things in a way that other people don’t. It’s really inspiring and humbling to have those two as Instagram aficionados!

Isn’t it Klaus who takes the photo out of his bedroom every morning?

Yes, that’s so cool! One of our goals with Instagram is seeing the world in a different way and remembering it in a different way. Seeing the same view with a changing light is the centre of Instagram creativity, it’s seeing creative opportunities in the every day.

That would be a poetic ending but let’s touch a serious subject: Charlie Hebdo. It became a huge Instagram meme expressing solidarity.

It was certainly the largest we’ve seen so far. Instagram is a positive place where people come to express not complaints or anger but support for one another. #jesuischarlie was the top Hashtag for many many days, and I believe you are going to see more like that, whether it is support for a nation under attack or during a natural disaster.

Last but not least: do you have one particular photo on Instagram, which is your all time favourite. And, gently tackling copyright issues, can we use it for this article?

(laughing) I am happy to give you the permission to use my most favourite pic! Which is my first photo ever on Instagram. It’s a little dog and my fiancé’s foot. She keeps on telling me that if she knew that this was going to be first photo on Instagram she would have worn shoes. It’s awesome because it’s so raw. Usually, I do like to say that I have no favourite picture. Because that’s kind of like saying what’s your favourite word. One word without context makes usually no sense. More words make a sentence or a story. I feel the same way about Instagram. A photo is a word but an account is like a story. That’s the true expression: a story over time.