Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014. But even today, many users of those apps don’t realize they are part of Mark Zuckerberg’s empire. Facebook went to great lengths to allow them to operate as independent brands. There are many “I hate Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. I’m going to Instagram” posts on social media.
The companies had their own CEOs, their own apps and websites, their own office buildings and email addresses. Facebook even allowed WhatsApp employees to have nicer desks and fancier bathrooms.
Friday, Facebook confirmed that the independent era is over. It has told employees that Facebook’s ownership of both apps will become clearer. Instagram’s app says “Instagram from Facebook” at the bottom of the login page and the settings page. “We want to be clearer about the products and services that are part of Facebook,” said spokeswoman Bertie Thomson. The change was earlier reported by The Information.
The timing of the news, like many things associated with Facebook recently, seemed simultaneously logical and bone-headed.
Zuckerberg has taken steps in the past year to suggest Facebook intended to make WhatsApp and Instagram less independent. He pushed out both companies’ founders and installed Facebook executives. Earlier this year, he said that he would merge their messaging platforms into an encrypted version of Facebook Messenger. In that context, taking the step of making it clearer that Instagram and WhatsApp are part of Facebook makes sense.
Also, much as WhatsApp and Instagram employees and users might not like it, merging the three brands also allows Zuckerberg to say that he’s doing what the world is asking of him. For three years, critics have hammed him for not having better operational control over his empire. Now, he’s asserting control.
What makes the move seem ill-considered is that just last week Facebook confirmed that both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are investigating the company for possible antitrust violations. Among the items the agencies are considering: Whether Facebook’s purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram were anti-competitive, because they snuffed out potential rivals. It’s hard to avoid wondering if Facebook’s rebranding exercise isn’t some ham-handed effort at convincing government lawyers that three apps are already fused.
Twenty years ago, Microsoft tried to make a similar argument about its Windows operating system and its Internet Explorer browser. The government said Microsoft had illegally tied Explorer to Windows as a way of crushing browser competitor Netscape. Microsoft won the argument on appeal. But it was a grueling four-year fight that hindered Microsoft’s ability to innovate for the next decade.
We know that Zuckerberg and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates are friends. You’d think Gates would be advising him not to make this mistake again.