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The calmer, more private version of Instagram that Facebook killed

Filtergram offered Instagram without the ads, algorithms, or comments. Then one day, it stopped working.

The calmer, more private version of Instagram that Facebook killed
[Source photos: NeONBRAND/Unsplash; Tanalee Youngblood/Unsplash]
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This is the story of a lovely little web app called Filtergram, which met its demise last year after trying to make Instagram more tolerable.

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Unlike Instagram’s own website, Filtergram let users view public posts in chronological order and mute specific keywords. It also omitted likes and comments from all posts, and it didn’t include any advertising. Filtergram even offered its own account system, separate from Instagram, so that users could set up news feeds without the pervasive web tracking that comes from being logged into Facebook’s system.

“Filtergram was supposed to be a very minimal Instagram viewer,” says Ben Howdle, the U.K.-based software engineer who created Filtergram in late 2018. “You didn’t have any comments on there. You had the person’s caption just to give it a little context, when it was uploaded, and then you had the ability just to favorite and unfavorite. And that was it.”

Facebook did not take kindly to Filtergram’s behavior. Although Howdle isn’t quite sure how it happened, one day Filtergram stopped working. Users could no longer refresh their feeds on the site, and all of Howdle’s attempts to restore the flow of content failed. (An Instagram spokeswoman says the company looked into any way it might have contacted Filtergram, and “it does not look like any action was taken from our end.”)

“Unfortunately, due to Instagram’s hostile ecosystem (blocking requests) and lack of willingness to liberate content to third party apps, Filtergram is shutting down,” Howdle wrote on Twitter last September.

On its own, the demise of Filtergram is lamentable. But it also represents a last gasp for the broader concept of third-party social media readers, which often improved or expanded on the user experience with features that official apps lacked. Over the years, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have all become more restrictive on developer access to their platforms, making it harder for services like Filtergram to exist. For a handful of months last year, we got a small glimpse at what a more open platform might have produced.

Limitations and workarounds

For the past four years, Instagram hasn’t allowed developers to re-create the kind of feed that users see in the official app. Although Instagram once offered a tool for this purpose, called the Feed API, it shut down that option in late 2015, citing a need for “a more sustainable environment built around authentic experiences on the platform.” In other words, the network wanted to centralize users on its own app and not worry about what third-party clients were doing. The end of the Feed API killed off a lot of novel uses for Instagram, such as browsing using native iPad apps, viewing content in Flipboard, and seeing what other users’ feeds looked like.

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So Howdle devised a workaround: Instead of trying to work with Instagram’s developer tools, he created a scraper that looked through the HTML code on public Instagram pages and extracted the image links and surrounding metadata for each post. That information would go into a database, which Filtergram then used to populate the feeds on its own site. (The site didn’t work with private Instagram pages.)

“I wasn’t downloading images. I was just saving image links. And then I would just display them in an image tag in Filtergram,” Howdle says.

Howdle says he originally built Filtergram for his wife as she pursued a personal training career. She wanted to follow certain fitness influencers on Instagram for their workouts and nutrition advice, but wanted to filter out their glamor shots, followers’ comments, and other cruft.

People latched onto things that I didn’t really anticipate them latching onto.”

Ben Howdle

But in building other features, like the chronological feed and the ability to view Instagram content without sending any personal data to Facebook, Howdle attracted a broader audience. “People latched onto things that I didn’t really anticipate them latching onto,” he says.

Filtergram wasn’t a huge hit—Howdle estimates that it had in the “low thousands” of users—but the site was growing as word of its existence spread. That growth, in turn, may have helped accelerate the site’s downfall.

Filtergram died slowly. At first, users started complaining that their news feeds were empty, then Howdle noticed that his web scraper was redirecting to a login page instead of scraping profiles. Although he tried using a proxy service to grab data from Instagram on Filtergram’s behalf, that quickly became cost-prohibitive, and Instagram started blocking those requests as well. Howdle, who wasn’t making any money from the service, eventually realized it was time to give up and released his code on Github.

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“It felt like, if Instagram was blocking it at this point, I could spend more time and money on it, but it was going to go down a path where they were just going to keep blocking it,” Howdle says.

Howdle has a few theories for why Filtergram stopped working: As the site grew, it may have triggered some automatic blocking, as the behavior of loading lots of profiles from a single location wouldn’t have fit the pattern of a regular user. Facebook and Instagram could also have gotten wind of Filtergram through press coverage or the site’s Product Hunt page and taken manual action. (Facebook, after all, forbids site scraping in its terms of service.)

In any case, Howdle never received an explanation from Instagram itself, nor did he seek one out, acknowledging that Filtergram’s existence probably didn’t benefit the social network in any way.

Life after Filtergram

Filtergram’s long-term viability was always a long shot, given its reliance on scraping data from Instagram’s web pages. Still, the underlying idea—that of a more passive, more private version of Instagram—is one that deserves to exist.

Unfortunately, social networks have only clamped down further on developer access to their platforms in recent years. Facebook itself also stopped allowing developers to display news feeds in their apps in 2015, a year before Instagram did the same. Twitter, meanwhile, shut off the APIs that apps like Tweetbot and Twitterific depended on for notifications and auto-refreshing timelines in 2018, effectively forcing users into the main Twitter app for basic functionality. As a result, if you want to access Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, you have to accept all the tracking and advertising that comes from using their own apps. There’s no room for alternative experiences built around the same underlying data.

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None of which is to say that sites like Instagram should freely allow developers to scrape their data, as this can lead to privacy abuses. (See, for instance, the New York Times‘s recent reporting on Clearview AI, which built a face recognition database for law enforcement by scraping images from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo, and other sources.) But there should be some middle ground that allows developers to innovate in the same way that Filtergram did.

In principle, it makes sense that you should be able to have control of the content you’re consuming.”

Matt Smith

Strangely enough, Instagram might end up offering such a thing. Last October, Instagram announced a new developer tool called the Basic Display API, which allows third-party apps to display profile information, photos, and videos from Instagram accounts. Matt Smith, CEO and founder of the Instagram marketing platform Later, says this API could technically allow for a Filtergram-like experience without scraping, and he likes the idea behind it.

“In principle, it makes sense that you should be able to have control of the content you’re consuming,” he says.

I showed this information to Howdle, and he concurred, with one notable issue: For an app like Filtergram to function using this API, it would first have to authenticate through an Instagram account. That, Howdle says, goes against what he’d built Filtergram to accomplish in the first place. “Shame,” he says via email, “because this could’ve solved a lot of my issues!”

While we might lament the loss of Filtergram, it’s a little too late to save Howdle’s original use case for the site. His wife, who is now a fitness instructor, has become a much more active Instagram user lately—comments and all. Filtergram’s undoing, it seems, had its desired effect.

“She has Instagram, and she’s in the Instagram ecosystem,” Howdle says. “She’s relented.”