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Instagram founders' exit means there's now no one to challenge Zuckerberg

San Francisco

WHILE he took time off for paternity leave this month, Instagram's Kevin Systrom had time to reflect on all the small ways Facebook had started to impose its will on the photo-sharing app he co-founded.

Earlier this year, his parent company asked for prompts within Instagram that would drive traffic and add content to its main social network. Meanwhile, Facebook removed some of the links to download Instagram from the Facebook app, people familiar with the matter said.

Facebook also wanted more influence over Instagram's functions such as ad sales, reducing the potential for growth in the app's own staff in the coming year. Then, in July, CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed to take credit for Instagram's success on the company's earnings call.

Mr Systrom and his co-founder, Mike Krieger, had spent six years running Instagram as a division of Facebook, while pursuing their own vision for the app - even when that was sometimes at odds with Mr Zuckerberg's ideas.

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Lately Facebook had become relentless in its pushes for data sharing, product integrations and other moves that would benefit the overall company, said the people, who asked not to be named discussing internal dynamics. When Mr Systrom came back from leave this week, he and Mr Krieger abruptly announced that they were leaving the social media giant. Facebook was not prepared for the news.

"Building new things requires that we step back, understand what inspires us and match that with what the world needs," Mr Systrom wrote, without mentioning Mr Zuckerberg. "We look forward to watching what these innovative and extraordinary companies do next."

He used the plural - "companies" - even though without him and Mr Krieger, Instagram will most likely start to become less of a separate entity. The founders' exit clears the way for Mr Zuckerberg to achieve his vision for cross-promotion among what he calls a "family of apps", the group that encompasses Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger.

Instagram will probably become more integrated behind the scenes, sharing some teams and product goals with Facebook, people familiar with the matter said. No longer will anyone have founder-level authority to challenge Mr Zuckerberg's ideas with a discrete vision for the app's future and brand.

While absorbing Instagram more completely could help Facebook reach the goals it has set for the app's contribution to revenue growth targets, it may also threaten the unique culture that Instagram's founders sought to preserve. Amid mounting scrutiny around Facebook's data practices and its role in the spread of misinformation and hate speech, people have flocked to Instagram as an alternative. Any shift to become more Facebook-like could risk the very thing that has attracted new users and kept them coming back to Instagram.

This year, Mr Zuckerberg started mentioning Instagram more frequently on the company's earnings calls, touting the app's rise to more than one billion users as a testament to how effectively the acquisition was integrated within Facebook.

With Facebook's help, Instagram grew "more than twice as quickly as it would have on its own", Mr Zuckerberg said in July - a comment that Instagram employees felt was unprovable, and took as evidence of the billionaire's desire to take credit for Instagram's rise.

The founders' departures cap a string of executive moves at the photo-sharing app, and at Facebook more broadly. Marne Levine, the Instagram chief operating officer who helped the app operate harmoniously with its parent, will transition to an executive role at Facebook, leading global partnerships and business development, the company said this month.

Nicky Jackson Colaco, Instagram's director of public policy, recently left the company. Kevin Weil, the head of product, was replaced by Adam Mosseri in May. Mr Mosseri, who previously ran Facebook's news feed, is most likely the next leader of Instagram, according to people familiar with the matter.

Those shuffles, combined with the founders' departures, create an opening for Facebook to take charge of the product more directly. Now Mr Zuckerberg has to decide how far to push, without risking the value of Instagram's less-tarnished brand. BLOOMBERG

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