This week, Facebook lost an executive who, in a better and different world, might one day have taken the helm of the social networking giant.
On Monday, Kevin Systrom, as well as his longtime partner, Mike Krieger, the founders of Instagram, quit Facebook. While seemingly out of the blue, it was a long time coming. The reason? Their unhappiness over increasingly aggressive meddling by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, about how Instagram was run.
This might seem like business as usual in Silicon Valley. Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, when it was a wee thing, and helped it surpass a billion users. Fighting over control of tech companies is commonplace, and executive shuffles happen all the time. At Facebook alone in the last two years, the founders of WhatsApp, the messaging product, left amid disagreements over the placement of advertising. So too much of the team that founded the Oculus, Facebook’s virtual reality project, as well as a conga line of other founders of start-ups the social media giant has swallowed whole. They all essentially took the money and ran (usually to luxury yachts in Fiji).
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But what happened with the Instagram guys is different. A pair of extraordinarily talented entrepreneurs — who multiple sources said very much wanted to stay at Facebook, who have a gift for making great products and whose jewel-in-the-crown unit was driving the future of the entire Facebook ecosystem — had worked hard to make their creation a huge success and had remained at the company for six years already. This is not typical in tech, which is a credit to Facebook.
But then they became so irked by their boss that they up and left without any warning.
“In a perfect world, they wanted to continue to build and were not bored at all,” said one person with knowledge of the situation. “But they were frustrated by an inability to take it to the next level.”
Frustrated indeed. Mr. Systrom returned on Monday from a parental leave and his first act was to quit. Think about that. While some inside Facebook are trying to spin the narrative that he’d spent his time away deep in contemplation and simply decided that six years was enough, that’s not the true motivation.
Instead, many sources say, a series of changes imposed from above made it clear to Mr. Systrom and Mr. Krieger, and many others at Instagram, that their input was no longer valued. And more, that they had lost the autonomy they once had been given by Mr. Zuckerberg, who now seemed to want Instagram to use its momentum to help the big “blue app,” as the main platform is called at Facebook.
Those new changes included: Severe cutbacks ordered by Mr. Zuckerberg in how much Instagram was promoted on the main Facebook platform; a long fight over whether Instagram should offer a robust video TV service that would have competed with another on Facebook; the feeling that Instagram was understaffed compared to other less successful initiatives like Oculus; management restructurings that were perceived as moving Instagram down the pecking order; and, most of all, a growing perception that Instagram’s success, especially among young audiences, was somehow hurting the main platform.
“We grew them and now it was time to change the way they operated as things changed” said one person close to Facebook’s top management, echoing a common sentiment.
Perhaps. But alienating Mr. Systrom and Mr. Krieger this way was a mistake, and their departure a bad sign in what has been a year of bad signs for Facebook. It needs those guys now more than ever.
Mr. Systrom especially could have helped Mr. Zuckerberg, who, after years of sizzling success, has recently presided over a series of missteps and management snafus. The company is facing Russian meddling, fake news, bot-mania, privacy screw-ups and even tragic deaths due in part to the way the platform was designed and has been used.
Oh, and Alex Jones, so much vile Alex Jones.
While it’s good to be king — and Mr. Zuckerberg is that, controlling every aspect of the company from its many units to its board, as the controlling shareholder — it’s not easy. Without the Instagram founders there, it will be so much harder.
Mr. Systrom and Mr. Krieger were dubbed by some at Facebook as not “team players.” Inside the freakishly cohesive culture of the company, they were considered an irritant.
That’s a shame, since that’s exactly what Facebook needs. Which is to say, people willing to challenge the groupthink that for too long included a stubborn resistance to admitting and addressing the company’s flaws.
Mr. Systrom wasn’t afraid to do that. When tech executives don’t like a thing I have written, I typically get a call full of gnashing teeth and why-are-you-so-mean plaintiveness. But when I recently declared on Instagram that I was sick of Instagram and had major issues with the service, Mr. Systrom texted and asked me why. It was neither a suck-up nor did he try to debate me.
So, I told him: It’s performative; it makes people feel badly, even if it’s beautiful; it has turned into a brag book of strivers; it is a museum and not a place to connect; it has stolen too many of its ideas from Snapchat. That said, I saw the good side, too, and wanted him to make it easier to find the many delightful things, like photographers and funny people, that made the platform joyful.
Unlike other hot-house-flower zillionaires I cover, this criticism did not slay Mr. Systrom. Maybe I am setting a low bar, but I admire him for being someone who can always take it, and that quality will be sorely missed at Facebook.
Even more important, unlike Mr. Zuckerberg, who in a recent podcast with me was unable to articulate how he felt about the high price society had paid for his success, Mr. Systrom is reflective and self-critical about the challenges that social media faces and the damage that it has done.
That was the case at a recent talk I had with him at a hopelessly hip coffee place in San Francisco, where I was left with one thought: He should be the chief executive of Facebook.
One thing he said seemed particularly wise, so I asked him if I could put it on the record, and he agreed.
“Social media is in a pre-Newtonian moment, where we all understand that it works, but not how it works,” Mr. Systrom told me, comparing this moment in the tech world to the time before man could explain gravity. “There are certain rules that govern it and we have to make it our priority to understand the rules, or we cannot control it.”
It would be nice if he was still in the room to articulate that to powerful people like Mr. Zuckerberg. But now, just like that, he’s not.