Today let’s talk about how two of the world’s most important social networks settled an ancient grudge, and what it tells us about the prospects for a more open internet as tech giants work to build a metaverse.
On Wednesday, Instagram delivered an announcement nine years in the making. Since 2012, Instagram photos shared to Twitter have appeared only as plain text links. From now on, Instagram links will include a preview of the image — just as they did before Instagram sold to Facebook, and competitive pressures and professional rivalries combined to worsen our collective user experience.
“They said it would never happen,” Instagram tweeted Wednesday. And indeed, this reversal was one that few saw coming. The path to peace involved wine, pizza, and backyard dealmaking — but to really appreciate what happened, you have to start at the moment everything fell apart.
When it launched in October 2010, Instagram was maybe the easiest way to share photos to Twitter. At the time, Twitter couldn’t even host photos itself; you had to post them through third-party services with confidence-inspiring names like Yfrog and Photobucket. Instagram, thanks primarily to its slick filters, quickly became one of the most popular ways to tweet photos.
There was also a personal connection between the apps’ founders. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had worked with future Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom at Twitter’s predecessor company, Odeo, and after Instagram launched became one of its most important early supporters. Dorsey regularly tweeted Instagram photos to his large following, and soon he was joined by early-to-Twitter celebrities including Justin Bieber and Snoop Dogg. Twitter benefited from the easy photo sharing; Instagram, meanwhile, grew its user base quickly on the back of a feature that let you find your friends from Twitter on the app.
That all began to change in April 2012, when Facebook bought Instagram for $715 million. Twitter had also tried to buy the company, but lost out to Mark Zuckerberg and his promise to help Systrom and co-founder Mike Krieger reach global scale with minimal interference. Dorsey took the loss personally and stopped posting to Instagram forever. A few months later, Twitter blocked Instagram’s access to its following graph, preventing users from quickly finding their friends there.
Then, in December, Facebook retaliated: photos shared from Instagram would no longer appear in the Twitter timeline. As Sarah Frier recounts in her book No Filter, Facebook executives believed enabling photo previews was only helping Twitter to grow and increase its available ad inventory. And so the company pulled the plug on link previews, and Twitter got so mad about that that it leaked a story to the New York Times alleging Systrom had perjured himself during the sale to Facebook. (Nothing ever really came of that, aside from bad feelings.)
Then nine years went by. Instagram’s co-founders quit Facebook in 2018. By then, Instagram had hit 1 billion users, most of them younger than their counterparts on Facebook. Twitter entered an extended period of stasis that only began to thaw in the past two years, when the company added hundreds of employees and began rapidly shipping new products under head of product Kayvon Beykpour.
Every once in a while, the ban on Twitter link previews would come up internally, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told me in an interview. Dorsey once sent him a direct message asking if they could work it out. But there were always higher priorities to address, and some lingering competitive concerns. (Twitter and Instagram compete more directly on photo sharing in Japan, for example, he said.) And so nothing happened.
Twitter, meanwhile, was increasingly open to cross-platform partnerships. It started a popular and hilarious Instagram account. It enabled the sharing of tweets directly to Instagram stories. It also began embedding YouTube videos directly in tweets.
I saw a Verge story about that last item and, in the obnoxious fashion of many journalists, quote-tweeted it with a mild dunk. “Now do Instagram photos. Thanks!” I posted in March. “We’d like to. Takes two to tango,” Beykpour clapped back. I tagged in Mosseri and asked if I could interest him in a tango. Mosseri responded with a GIF of a man dancing alone in kitchen.