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Instagram cofounder feared Zuckerberg ‘destroy mode’ in acquisition: texts

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  • Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom worried that Mark Zuckerberg would go into “destroy mode” if he didn’t sell the company to Facebook, according to records of his text messages.
  • Instagram investor Matt Cohler warned that Zuckerberg would “go harder into destroy mode” if Instagram turned down the acquisition offer.
  • The exchange was published by the House Judiciary Committee as part of its historic antitrust hearing Wednesday where Zuckerberg faced questions over Facebook’s purchases of competitors.
  • Regulators didn’t challenge the Instagram acquisition at the time, but the deal has since drawn scrutiny from both regulators and politicians who say it constituted anti-competitive behavior.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Mark Zuckerberg spent Wednesday trying to persuade lawmakers that Facebook’s acquisitions and cloning of competitors’ products and features haven’t amounted to monopolistic behavior, and that it has plenty of competition.

But when Zuckerberg first expressed interest in buying Instagram in 2012, cofounder Kevin Systrom didn’t appear confident about what would happen if he opted to remain independent.

“Will [Zuckerberg] go into destroy mode if I say no [to an acquisition deal]?” Systrom asked in a message to Benchmark Capital’s Matt Cohler, according to documents published by the House Judiciary Committee as part of its antitrust hearing on Wednesday.

“Probably,” replied Cohler, an early Facebook employee-turned-VC who had invested in Instagram and was on its board of directors.

Cohler also warned that Zuckerberg was unlikely to be deterred by the fact that Instagram was keen on raising additional startup funding.

“He’ll go harder into destroy mode,” Cohler told Systrom. 

The names in the text transcript are redacted, but the committee’s website identifies the two participants in the conversation as Systrom and Cohler.

Screen Shot 2020 07 29 at 10.59.14 AM

Text messages between Kevin Systrom [me] and Matt Cohler [name redacted].

House Judiciary Committee


“Mark doesn’t react emotionally, he reacts based on competition”

Systrom and Cohler went on to strategize around how to best respond to Zuckerberg’s probe, weighing options like downplaying Instagram’s strength and saying the product wouldn’t be a good fit or able to succeed within Facebook.

But two things they seemed to agree on: Zuckerberg was most worried about Instagram getting bought up by Twitter, and they were worried about Zuckerberg trying to crush Instagram if they refused to sell.

“If i make the ‘leave instagram alone for Facebook’s sake’ argument, [Zuckerberg] will conclude that it’s best to crush instagram,” Cohler said, implying that they wouldn’t be able to fend off Facebook just by floating the possibility of selling to Twitter.

Mark Zuckerberg



Erin Scott/Reuters


Ultimately, Systrom and Cohler concluded during the text exchange that Instagram needed to keep raising money and they needed to convince Zuckerberg that they weren’t a threat to Facebook.

“Mark doesn’t react emotionally, he reacts based on competition,” Systrom said, “that’s why i think signaling no competition is good.”

“Bottom line I don’t think we’ll ever escape the wrath of mark,” he added. “It just depends how long we avoid it.”

Screen Shot 2020 07 29 at 11.54.50 AM

Text messages between Kevin Systrom [me] and Matt Cohler [name redacted].

House Judiciary Committee


Facebook eventually got its way just two months after the exchange, buying Instagram for $1 billion in April 2012. The price tag seemed massive at the time, but Instagram reportedly brought in $20 billion in revenue for Facebook last year alone and has the second-most number of monthly users in the US, according to eMarketer.

Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram has since come under scrutiny from regulators and politicians who argue it amounted to anti-competitive practices. Zuckerberg faced multiple questions on the topic Wednesday, and argued that Facebook still faces lots of competition.

“The most popular messaging service in the US is iMessage,” Zuckerberg told lawmakers. “The fastest-growing app is TikTok. The most popular app for video is YouTube. The fastest growing ads platform is Amazon. The largest ads platform is Google. And for every dollar spent on advertising in the US, less than 10 cents is spent with us.”

Still, the committee obtained large numbers of documents from Facebook and others companies as part of its antitrust investigation, including emails where Zuckerberg said he viewed Instagram as a significant threat to Facebook’s business before acquiring it.

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