Don’t Let “Scale” Get in the Way of Good Community Strategy
Communities are good for business, but are businesses good for communities? This question has come up on the show before, specifically when we spoke to community hosts losing their Yahoo Groups and when IMDb’s message boards were closed and erased. What happens when corporation-led communities are determined to have outlived their usefulness to the corporation, but not to the members? Does this lead to more grassroots-led communities? How will the tools and examples we’ve created serve those grassroots communities?
Bailey Richardson, a community professional that helped build Instagram and recently co-authored Get Together, and Patrick address these questions on this episode, as well as:
- The current community software landscape and why there’s still room for growth
- What happens when you need to demote or ban a community leader
- Why graffiti is allowed on Instagram
Not all interactions can infinitely scale (10:08): “When we left [Instagram], people on our team [asked], ‘What’s the one thing that we should remember?’ Our response was treating people well on a one-on-one basis, on a very human level, I think does scale. Those interactions that you build that are deep touch interactions, I think actually can have a very big impact on culture, on a platform overall, and that’s a principle that I think a lot of people try, as their businesses get larger, to do anything in their power to not do high touch things with a small number of people. … I participated in building one of the fastest-growing companies in the world. Some of what made the platform special was the fact that we met people who really cared about our platform where they were and got to know them and celebrated them.” –@baileyelaine
How boundaries keep communities on track (17:40): “Sometimes the structure that you put in can help people actually access the value they want from you in the first place. … If I’m coming to your karate forum, I want to talk about karate. I’m not showing up to talk about politics.” –@baileyelaine
When business goals outweigh community values (44:20): “There’s something quite fragile about someone showing up for something that they care so much about that they contribute an outsized amount of effort to with very little expectation of any kind of financial or real reward in their life. … The thing that I worry most about is the reality of business is that ensuring those people’s enjoyment, happiness, and respect is not the primary goal. … It’s just painful to see them let down when you know the purity of the way they showed up for you, and when you can’t match them with that, it’s just a difficult thing to carry around.” –@baileyelaine
About Bailey Richardson
Three years ago, Bailey Richardson started People & Company with Kai Elmer Sotto and Kevin Huynh, on a mission is to help people bring their people together. People & Company works with organizations to make smarter bets about investing in communities. They also interview extraordinary people organizers on their podcast Get Together, and in August 2019, they published Get Together, a book about how to build communities today based on the research and strategy work they’ve done with hundreds of community organizers.
Bailey was also one of the first 10 employees at Instagram, working on the community team. She has also worked for IDEO, StoryCorps, Pop-Up Magazine and The California Sunday Magazine, made a short film about a Pinoy inventor named Dado Banatao, interviewed Russians who are LGBTQ about what their lives are really like, asked Casey Neistat how to make and share videos people love, and started a Mola Mola Fan Club.
- Bailey Richardson on Twitter
- Get Together, a book on building community with your people, written by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto
- Get Together, a podcast about the nuts and bolts of community building, hosted by Bailey, Kevin, and Kai
- People & Company, the consultancy that Bailey co-founded
- Quitting Instagram: She’s one of the millions disillusioned with social media. But she also helped create it. (via the Washington Post)
- Drew Kelly, an early Instagram user
- Tonic is a curated news app from Canopy
- Bassey Etim is the editorial director at Canopy and former guest on Community Signal
- Bogleheads, a community inspired by John Bogle’s investment ideologies
- Bailey names the following community platforms: Groups.io, Mighty Networks, Disciple, and Mixr
- Patrick names the following community platforms: Discourse, xenForo, and Invision
- Sarah Hawk is the vice president of community and product at Discourse
- Heather Champ and the Biggest Threats to Great Online Communities
- Howard Rheingold, founder of the WELL
- IMDb’s Message Boards and Why Trolls Don’t Force Communities to Close
[0:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[0:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to Community Signal. We’re talking with Bailey Richardson, co-author of the new book Get Together about discrete online spaces, finding genuine leaders, and ethical communities. Our Patreon supporters are really loyal and we appreciate their support of the show. This group includes Jules Standen and Heather Champ and Carol Benovic-Bradley. Thank you. If you’d like to join them, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Three years ago, Bailey Richardson started People and Company with Kai Elmer Sotto and Kevin Huynh. Their mission is to help people bring their people together. They work with organizations to make smarter bets about investing in their communities. Bailey, Kai, and Kevin host the Get Together podcast and recently authored a book with the same name, Get Together, on how to build communities today based on the research and strategy work they’ve done with hundreds of community managers. In the past life, Bailey was also one of the first 10 employees at Instagram, working on the community team. She has also worked for IDEO, StoryCorps, Pop-Up Magazine and The California Sunday Magazine, made a short film about a Pinoy inventor named Dado Banatao, interviewed Russians who are LGBTQ about what their lives are really like, asked Casey Neistat how to make and share videos people love, and started a Mola Mola Fan Club.
[00:01:35] Bailey Richardson: Hey, how’s it going? Thanks for having me.
[00:01:38] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s going great. It’s a pleasure to have you on.
[00:01:40] Bailey Richardson: Same here. Absolutely.
[00:01:41] Patrick O’Keefe: I don’t want to talk too much about your time and Instagram because I feel like you’ve talked about that probably plenty in your life.
[00:01:47] Bailey Richardson: [chuckle]
[00:01:48] Patrick O’Keefe: But there were a couple of things that I wanted to just talk about real quick. You left Instagram as a user in September of 2018 the day after the cofounders unexpectedly left Facebook and said I don’t want to get into this too much it was covered in the Washington Post, I read that article, but there’s one thing that caught my eye that wasn’t really elaborated on that I was curious about quoting directly from the piece here, quote “Richardson’s team of about six employees, which was focused on managing Instagram’s most passionate power users was also targeted for change. Facebook told them that in order for the product of scale to a larger audience, software tools would need to replace manual processes, Richardson and two former employees said.” What processes were targeted?
[00:02:28] Bailey Richardson: The thing that we did in the very beginning of Instagram, which honestly was probably a response to the fact that it was a very simple app. Instagram has always been a very simple app. It launched and took off immediately. One of the things that the community team was tasked with was curating the site, in many ways. Search was pretty bad. When people were signing up in new cities all around the world, sometimes they weren’t users near them. We did a number of different curation tactics, one of which was we hand-selected suggested users for probably two to three years, regular people who had amazing use cases with Instagram. That included one of my favorite users of all time is a guy named Drew Kelly, who was from Newport Beach or Orange County. He went to go teach English in North Korea who was taking photos walking around there in the subway stations, going to markets and that was the kind of thing at the time seeing people like Drew that, in my experience of the internet or media, I had never been able to see through someone else’s eyes in real-time on the other side of the world before I started using Instagram. We would put people like that on our suggested user list or write about them on the blog or Instagram account.
When we got to Facebook, they’re just a very data-driven company. It makes sense when you think about the process and experience that they’ve been through of growing to billions of users, but they got to a point in the company’s history where they started to really distrust anything that was intuitive, creative. I think it’s also in Mark’s ethos, he’s very utilitarian about the product, but they’re quite skeptical of anything that is close to, I think human proactive creation. When you look at Instagram, it’s a different product. It started out as a very creative community. In order to inspire people creatively, I think often there needs to be a human touch there needs to be a sort of curator. What they started to do is change things like who you see when you log in on the app or the discover feed, which was like the feed that is the second tab from the bottom left, where you see things that you may not otherwise have bumped into on the platform and wanted to remove our team’s role in that. I think in the article I say something about how they just misunderstood what we were trying to do, and I think in some ways they misunderstood the education that we were trying to do, which was very important to Instagram’s growth in the early days; showing people what the platform was for and how to take interesting photos by inspiring them with other people, but also we really saw the ability to feature people. The ability to write about them on our blog, reach out to them, as a way to build relationships with people who were extremely passionate about Instagram as a way to find a middle ground and get to know people. That was something that, when you replace the strategies with a more automated approach, you don’t get to broker those relationships with real people all around the world who are using the product.
[00:05:54] Patrick O’Keefe: Manual curation makes me think of a product that was just released. An app called, I’ve got to get it right, Tonic from a company called Canopy.
[00:06:03] Bailey Richardson: Yes, I’ve heard of Canopy.
[00:06:05] Patrick O’Keefe: My friend Bassey Etim is over there as the editorial director. News is an area that is also very data-driven, especially in the way that we discover news. I think about my phone, my android phone, I don’t remember ever turning on news alerts. I have a Pixel 2, I don’t ever remember turning those on. Maybe I opted into it at some point, but it sure has a lot of suggestions based upon things that I know, or liked, or searched for, and they’re usually pretty right. Tonic is an effort to take I guess in some ways the contrarian approach, right?
In this case, I think it’s mainly Bassey curating the best stories of the day or today’s top picks for those who are looking for stories that are at a certain level of interest or criteria or whatever it is. I actually can’t download the app yet because much like Instagram when it first started, it’s Apple only. That’s why I didn’t get Patrick O’Keefe to use it, and the shirtless kid did. Well, he’s not the shirtless kid anymore. He was shirtless when I saw him on there, and now I follow him.
He’s a Red Sox fan, unfortunately, but he has Patrick O’Keefe. I don’t think about it, I should have used my brain a little bit and ask my dad to download Instagram or something, and got my username, but I was slow to the punch.
[00:07:21] Bailey Richardson: Yes, it happens sometimes. You can’t win all of them. Absolutely.
[00:07:24] Patrick O’Keefe: I won a lot of them, I’m just kidding. One other Instagram things. It’s been five and a half years since you left Instagram as an employee. Are there any principles that you followed or community, I don’t know, guideline decisions, policies, that you made that you think scaled and still positively shape the platform today?
[00:07:42] Bailey Richardson: The most obvious one is that there’s graffiti on Instagram. There’s a very, not well-known topic, but perhaps your audience will be interested in it. My job when I first got to Instagram, or when I first started at Facebook, when Instagram was acquired, was to compare the policies that we had for what you could and couldn’t post on Instagram, to Facebook’s policies so that we could make progress into integrating our two review systems together.
At the time Facebook labeled graffiti as vandalism, and our team advocated for letting there be photos of graffiti on Instagram because so many people took photographs in front of them. That’s a very small one, but perhaps one of the most influential ones.
I think honestly when I first got to Facebook, a wonderful man was eventually hired to become the COO of Instagram, and his name is Eric Antonelle. He asked us to do an audit of how many people were “in the community.” People that were actively passionate about what Instagram stood for, were participating in the weekend hashtag projects, hey’d been featured, we had written about them. At the time, Instagram had certainly tens of millions of users, possibly getting close to near 100 million active monthly users. I think we had in the number of a couple of thousand people that were within that community. Being new to Facebook that made me quite self-aware.
Like I said it was such a data-driven company, it felt like maybe it wasn’t enough. Eric, my boss at the time said, “That’s remarkable that there are 2,000 people, 3,000 people,” whatever it was, maybe it was around 3 to 5, “that there are 3 to 5,000 people around the world who are out there passionately hosting InstaMeets or being good stewards of the culture of the site.” He as a senior manager was someone who looked at head-count. We only had probably 50 people working in Instagram at the time. He’s like, “to have that many people out in the world participating and shaping this thing authentically is such a gift.”
I think as I was leaving Instagram, I left at the same time as my boss at the time who was the first hire at Instagram, a guy named Josh Riedel, who started the community team. The first hire at Instagram was a community manager. When we left a lot of people on our team were like, what’s the one thing that we should remember? Our response was treating people well on a one on one basis on a very human level, actually, I think does scale. Those interactions that you build that are deep touch interactions, I think actually can have a very big impact on culture, on a platform overall, and that’s a principle that I think a lot of people try as their businesses get larger, to do anything in their power to not do high touch things with a small number of people. You can call me crazy, but I watched one of the fastest-growing companies in the world and participated in building one of the fastest-growing companies in the world. I think some of what made the platform special was the fact that we met people who really cared about our platform where they were and got to know them and celebrated them.
[00:11:04] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s funny because when you were talking about that I thought of this bus stop ad that I saw a couple of times now here in LA. It’s basically Facebook groups.
[00:11:13] Bailey Richardson: Yes, I’ve seen those in New York. It’s wild.
[00:11:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, advertising a particular group, right? Their picture who knows, has the people who are in stock photos, I guess.
[00:11:23] Bailey Richardson: Yes, that’s the question.
[00:11:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, Because that’s sort of pushing back to at least for marketing sake, suggesting that this group of people uses Facebook because it’s a great platform to get together and highlight in the group for that. I don’t like Facebook groups, but it’s kind of an interesting parallel there. You’re right, my audience does like policy matters, is very interested in matters of policy, and community moderation and guidelines. Since you brought up the graffiti point and made me think of Instagram’s policy on nudity is fairly well known. You see free the nipple stuff pop up from time to time. Were you part of that?
[00:11:55] Bailey Richardson: Yes, I don’t know if I was part of them as much of the backlash on the free the nipple piece and I hope I’m not walking past an NDA and discussing this. But it’s actually one of the things that I like to try to add some clarity about because I saw it from close up and the nuance of it. When I first started working at Instagram, we were like five to 10 people and the community team at the time, I like to describe it as we were the conduit between the people using the platform and the people building it and that meant really positive things like celebrating use cases, writing on the blog, as I talked about.
It also meant helping people who got logged out of the platform log back into their site, answering support tickets, and reviewing content and writing policies. All of those pieces fall into our bucket. I spent a lot of time just manually reviewing images and seeing what people were posting, good and bad. I honestly think at some point in the world, because of my specific role, I may have seen more mobile phone photographs than anyone else on the planet probably from the year of like 2012 to 2013. Yes, we were a group of people that were pretty culturally curious. A lot of us were very into art and music and photography and from the very early days, we tried to be actually like, as lenient as possible with nudity.
I’m sure you’ve had many conversations about this and I’m sure there are a number of people who have been on the podcast who are far more thoughtful than me about this topic but you begin to deal with an issue when you’re building a platform that is going that quickly, where nudity may be no big deal in Amsterdam, but it is a really big deal in Tehran, where people are blocking using your site. It’s hard to be in the center of that as if you can be God and make those decisions. We tried to err on the side of being more permissive with content in the beginning. This, as I said, was 2012-2013. We know so much more about the world now.
The biggest challenge was actually that Apple was quite strict with us. A lot of Instagram’s early users were young, they were, 13 and up and in order for the app to be available for that age group, which was a significant part of the people using our platform, Apple was pretty aggressive with us about taking down nudity or hiding hashtags that may expose nudity but the way Instagram worked traditionally in the very beginning, we tried to be as flexible as possible. A platform that always worked, at least up until I stopped working there. We also reviewed what was flagged there was no like proactive taking down of content if you had a private account, and someone had to flag your content in order for it to be reviewed by us and taken down.
There were some pressures that we were under that were outside of sort of our team’s willingness to be the arbiters of the world. That’s part of it. I think another part of it is just once you start to scale some of these systems, there are inevitably difficulties and communicating to a team of sometimes hundreds of people what should or should not be taken down and I think there are examples in our history where something was taken down that created a large story when in fact it may have been inadvertently taken down.
[00:15:04] Patrick O’Keefe: That makes a lot of sense. Just to be clear on my end, I actually don’t see the policy as bad or good. It’s a choice and I think you lay out a really good case. Apple has a lot of power increasingly so, and they use that in a lot of ways. We’ve seen it with their payment processing and how they want to make people use the app for everything and take 30%. It’s sort of picking your battles type of situation. It’s challenging is when you become one of the big three, four, five, six, whatever platforms in the world and people tend to view you in a different way. When you’re just starting out, you’re really deciding what you’re here for, what’s worth fighting. Ravelry on a much smaller scale recently banned all pro-Trump content.
Similarly, like that’s a choice. You know, that’s a choice. They’re making a choice. In some ways, it’s a practical choice. Online communities, all the ones I’ve managed large, small, whatever size tiny, I have now allowed political conversations because none of them were about that. My moderators’ time desperately needs to be spent 80% of it sifting through your political opinions. There are places for that and it doesn’t need to be my forum for martial artists or this private business community. We’re there to talk about martial arts and business. We’re not there to talk about politics.
[00:16:18] Bailey Richardson: Yes.
[00:16:19] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. I think that’s such an important part of community management and moderation is picking what matters and choosing the things that are actually worth fighting for and allowing yourself to prioritize your time to really focus on why you exist.
[00:16:32] Bailey Richardson: Yes. I think also sometimes it’s your job to design the sandbox that people can play in. Not to be pedantic, but I think there’s a way that people naturally move into political conversations, even if it might ruin an experience. We just like get, it’s surrounds us in the media. It’s such a big part of our lives in narrative. We just published the book and in the book, maybe you bumped into this example, but we talk about a forum that’s been around for like 25 years, Bogleheads, and it’s all informed by Jack Bogle’s investment philosophy. People are extremely generous with giving each other feedback on how to save their money or how to invest their money.
They have a similar rule, which is like, let’s not talk about politics and especially something like finances. It’s very possible that it could become just like a big conversation about who the next presidential candidate is or some sort of like a tangential topic. It does overlap with finances, but people can very easily get pulled into those conversations when in fact they’re showing up to Bogleheads to talk about how they should invest their money or to give each other generous advice. I think that sometimes the structure that you put in can help people actually access the value that they want from you in the first place that they show up for. If I’m coming to your karate forum, I want to talk about karate. I’m not showing up to talk about politics.
[00:17:54] Patrick O’Keefe: Right, but there are areas where they intersect. Like you said, things about, “Oh my hands are registered weapons.” That’s a legal issue and can verge on a political issue. We create a space where you can have relevant conversations and we try to maintain the line of verging into general politics.
This book Get Together a thank you for the free copy. FCC [crosstalk] disclosure out of the way. Very important. On page 58 you talk about finding the online space where your community can start talking. You say, “There can also be benefits to choosing a discrete space, devoid of the distractions. Some social platforms have.” What are those discrete spaces look like?
[00:18:36] Bailey Richardson: Gosh, I think they can look like tons of different things. I’m curious to see also what you’ve seen out there but my business partner Kevin, Kevin Huyhn, he’s taken one meeting with a grassroots community organizer almost every workday this year. This is like everything from someone who is starting a community for game developers of color to a mom community in a suburban area, all sorts of different types of groups. One of the things that we just keep hearing over and over again from people is that they don’t know where to host or like let their community have ongoing digital conversations.
There’s sort of like, we could go through a laundry list of all the different mainstream options that exist and list out some of their weaknesses, but the thing that I’m interested to see if someone will actually succeed in building one of the side spaces. It’s one of my biggest curiosities in technology over the course of the next three to five years is if someone’s able to build a platform that is primarily focused on groups of people and does not have to ultimately serve a corporation or enterprise as their source of revenue. I’ve seen things like tons of small ones like groups.io is an email platform that different people are using. Disciple, which is like Mighty Network, customizable branded apps for communities, so you can make your own Squarespace version of a private app. I’ve heard of this thing called Mixr, which is for women-first communities.
I’m seeing all these different solutions popping up for a problem, which is that I don’t know that there’s a great mobile supported community first platform out there, that serves small groups of these sizes. The main thing that we try to do is really start out from a design, a human-centered design perspective on any of these decisions. Which is, what are the topics that a community that we’re helping, or working with, really wants to cover? What kind of media? Do they like to share with long written word? Is it primarily visual in some way? What kind of media needs to be supported on any given platform? Do people want to be more private or less private? In the book, we tried to make sure we acknowledge all different use cases, but when we make those decisions more practically, it involves a number of different factors. Sometimes to just working with what’s out there, I hope someone builds a great product that feels like it really serves this sweet spot of people who are getting together in person, because that’s something that I’m pretty passionate about, and I’m not sure it’s quite there.
[00:21:15] Patrick O’Keefe: Got you. Yes, I find a couple of differentiating factors there. I guess one was getting meeting in person right at the end there, but also, you mentioned how options that don’t, at the end of the day have to have enterprise-level support or rely on that, for their business. Just drawing a line there, that would say, even on the lower cost end of communities. Again, not for in-person, people, but there’s various hosted community options, Discourse, xenForo, Invision Power Board, all sorts of things. In a Discourse case, they might make money from smaller groups, but to drive the business, they need enterprise clients. That introduces, well, I guess, in some cases, I’m not saying at Discourse, I know the VP of Community and Product Sarah Hawk over there, she’s great. But in cases like that, it can influence where the software goes in a way that doesn’t maybe serve the smaller players. Again, not saying that’s the case, they’re not in that community. I don’t know. Is that the concern there? That when they really need those enterprise-level customers that the software tends to skew toward those customers?
[00:22:15] Bailey Richardson: Yes, I think absolutely. That’s, again, I think you have probably a better sense of all these different technologies and what’s out there, but I think that this is the challenge that a lot of software platforms are facing right now, which is either, make your revenue off of big enterprise businesses who pay for your software, or the ad model. I feel like a lot of, very human interactions end up getting underserved on the internet because you and me and our squash group is not the way that revenue is generated. That affects the design, but I keep seeing people popping up trying to solve that problem and approaching building software in a very human way, trying to solve problems for squash groups, like what I want to be a part of. We’ll see, and I am curious to see how these more intimate group based platforms may or may not pop up in the next five to seven years.
[00:23:10] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, you told me before the show that, when it comes to which online spaces community you should use to connect, none are currently sufficient. It’s funny though, because that is not good that you feel that way, but also, I love the opportunity there. Because one thing I’ve always loved in the community space is the opportunity for greater diversity of platform choice. I managed a resource for the phpBB forum software, which has been around forever, but I managed the unofficial resource for the largest unofficial resource. It was big, it was popular, but one of the things that was odd about those sorts of communities and I feel like it’s died down, but it’s still present with anything, it’s not just community software. Obviously it’s sports teams, everything is like a zealotry or a religion that comes to it. You have to love this one or that one, or like, “Wow, this other stuff is bad.” If you’re phpBB, you should just be pro all this other stuff or not this, and that was always so weird to me. I ran a resource, I didn’t marry something. It’s just a software I use that find good and that’s why I started a large community on my own and around that software, but I’m always glad to see new players. I think coming at it from a human perspective is not just lip service, but as you say, important, because just one thing that I often see is, people, come in this space, and they’re like, “We’ve got a totally brand new thing that’s going to revolutionize the way online communities work. You’ve never seen anything like this before.” It’s, “Hey, it’s community software. You know what? I’ve seen that.” I really think that we can shuffle the elements in a way that serves an audience better. I think there’s a lot of interesting things that can happen there in serving individual needs and getting back to the pendulum swing of niches, if you will. Serving different types of groups. I think there’s a lot of fun things that can come up that, so I always like to see new software choices and there’s always space in the market.
[00:24:55] Bailey Richardson: Yes, absolutely. I totally agree. I’ve worked with just such amazing technologists, especially those early days of Instagram the product engineers that I worked with were just brilliant human people, really thoughtful excellent with psychology and design and trying to make a truly good user experience. I think because that was my first real, real deep interaction with product people, I just have such faith in them. The really good ones out there are like artists and like you said I love the way you phrase that just reshuffling things to fit whatever the new need is that’s untapped. I think that that’s one of the most beautiful things about software and that’s my hope. I think we’ve been in a reasonably stagnant space for a while maybe outside of from my perspective Slack coming in and being a good tool for people. I feel like it’s been a little stagnant in software development land for me. Maybe I’m getting older actually. Maybe it has nothing to do with the landscape and maybe I’m just less of a good early adopter.
[00:25:53] Patrick O’Keefe: Self awareness is important.
[00:25:54] Bailey Richardson: Exactly. I’m curious to see when someone will really make something that’s truly beautiful and really serves emotional and practical needs for people.
[00:26:05] Patrick O’Keefe: On page 140 of Get Together, you suggest to readers that if they want to find passionate leaders in their communities they should ask themselves the question; how can you vet for genuine leaders? The question is a quote from the book. This is me now. People have all sorts of motivations for participating in communities good, bad, and in between, determining whether or not someone is genuine is a judgment call. I think so anyway. How do you make that judgment?
[00:26:31] Bailey Richardson: Yes. I definitely think genuine is something that the way you might vet for it would differ for communities. I think just to make sure the audience knows. I feel like my business people and company and my business partners we look at extremely grassroots communities and digital ones, so we span the spectrum. When you think about maybe I’ll land it in Instagram example what genuine looks like. We very much felt like anyone that we’ve made and to a suggested user, or we wrote about on our blog because we had so many people following those things, it would give you a pretty big podium to stand on if we featured you. If we put you on suggested users you might get 20 to 40,000 new people following you within a week or two. We really wanted to make sure that people were educating each other on how to use Instagram well and that didn’t just mean take photos that were of reasonably high quality or of interesting content. It also meant how you treated people on the site. The way that we would vet people for genuineness on Instagram is I would literally look to see if they responded to comments people have left on their photos and if they responded thoughtfully or kindly to people who had posted then we’d also vet them if they’d had any serious content violations and things like that.
To me, the biggest behavior on Instagram that really demonstrated whether or not you were genuine was if you were posting quality content whether or not you had an audience. Then also that piece of just were you kind and thoughtful with people who are commenting on your photos. That was a metric of genuineness or a weight of that genuineness.
Then for my business partner, Kevin who has experience with community building was much more physical. He was the first employee at this thing called Creative Mornings which is now the largest in-person creative community in the world. They have chapters in over 200 cities and when Kevin started they were in four cities. The vetting for them was just basically they’re asking each community leader to host an event which might be for hundreds of people and to do that they had to get a sponsor, they had to get a space, they had to get free breakfast, and free coffee for everyone who was coming. It’s a lot to do compared to just being featured on a suggested user list and taking photos.
Kevin describes it as he basically threw up a giant wall for anyone who applied and people had to make a video; they had to produce a video for their application which was a test of what’s their personality, sure, but also were they willing to put in this much effort to host a Creative Mornings or to apply to host the Creative Mornings. They would also ask people, “Why are you excited to do this? What are your motivating reasons to want to open a chapter?” They’d have to find partners to open a chapter with and I think if you’re willing to collaborate with someone is a good signal of your human intentions, and they would phone screen people and have conversations with them. That level of vetting is much higher than just what I was doing culling the internet. I think being willing to see how do I know this person has treated people in the past and if you have something more demanding of an interview process like Kevin did asking them straight up, “Why would you like to do this? What are the things you’re excited about?” and just see what thoughtfulness they can offer you in their answers is also another version of how to vet.
[00:29:52] Patrick O’Keefe: You also mentioned how you shouldn’t be afraid to say goodbye to leaders who aren’t a good fit. Sometimes a leader becomes a poor fit over time and they can have a lot of sway in the community. I speak from experience, that I think experienced community builders probably have had that moment or multiple of that moment. How do you say goodbye to them?
[00:30:11] Bailey Richardson: Well, it depends on the infraction or what has happened.
[00:30:15] Patrick O’Keefe: Right. Sometimes I make it easy for you. Usually, they don’t, but sometimes.
[00:30:18] Bailey Richardson: Yes. Absolutely. It totally depends on what someone has done. There are probably more severe infractions than others, depending on what your community stands for or what kind of space you’re trying to create, but for a very simple example, if you were on the Instagram suggested user list, and you begin to post sponsored content, the goal of our suggested user list was to educate people about what the platform was meant to do. Someone brand new would bump into the suggested user list. Every single person who downloaded Instagram for the first time would bump into that list, and it would help them understand what the platform was all about. If someone just was posting a hashtag Nespresso ad, think it would be confusing for them when they’re a more normal use case of just taking pictures of their lives and sharing it with friends.
We made clear to anyone who got added to the suggested user list that they shouldn’t post sponsored content when they were being featured, and if someone did that, and we had it flagged to us, we found out about this as we monitored people, we would send them an email that just said, “We’ve taken you off the suggested user list. This is not something we communicated earlier but we feature with our suggested users if you’re doing sponsored content.” I think there’s a communication piece there, but for more serious infractions, sometimes it’s not just you get taken off the list. It’s like you get booted off of the platform, and with the companies, I’ve worked with, we’ve been working at such scale that we didn’t always have time for more nuanced conversations, but I’ve interviewed and researched different groups that are smaller. Usually, there’s quite a stern amount of communication or a stern form of communication that makes really clear like, “Hey, this is the infraction you broke, you agreed that you wouldn’t do this, and you’ve done it, it’s a serious offense.”
I know people who have managed Slack groups and smaller groups and they’ll often offer to explain the infraction or get on the phone or talk more if the person really wants to, but make very clear that the line in the sand was quite firm and someone crossed it.
I think it depends, the size of your community, how many resources you have for managing it and the seriousness of the infraction, but I think those are different approaches. I’ve also heard of communities that give a lot of leeway to people, and they really have to break the rules, three, five times in quite a serious way for them to ask those people to leave because they’re really trying to educate people and have them grow in the space and they have more room for error for people so that they can go on that journey of change.
I think it’s a complicated question, and I probably just gave too much detail, but I think that vector of how much time do you have to manage it, and how serious was the infraction are two things that I think about a lot. I’m curious what Patrick, what do you think? I’m turning the tables on you. You’ve been doing this for longer than me. What else do you think needs to get added into that equation?
[00:33:11] Patrick O’Keefe: I’ll answer that. I’m curious. Did you ever have anyone who was so honest that they said, “Hey, I have this number of followers on Instagram. I’m now going to do sponsored content. Can you take me off?”
[00:33:20] Bailey Richardson: I don’t know if anybody did do it proactively.
[00:33:23] Patrick O’Keefe: I’m just curious.
[00:33:24] Bailey Richardson: I have to say one of the things I’m proud about is the guy who was the first hire my boss, who was the first community manager. After he left Instagram, he went and got his MFA in creative writing, and I’ve heard this, I heard Heather on your podcast from Flickr talk about how serious she took her writing, and one of the things I’m most proud of was that we really tried to make our writing not just harsh or cool or robotic, but feel human and feel very clear, and be honest with people and upfront about what it was that they did. That was an infraction because I think people often I trust them and usually when you call someone out on something they really did mess up. Most people who are saying or at all sympathetic or empathetic will agree with you, and they’ll accept in some ways eventually, that they did actually break the rules and what they did clearly cross the line, but that’s not everyone.
[00:34:17] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, maybe 30 years when you’re on your deathbed, and it’s a confession to you, but sure, but they’ll still get there.
I’m someone who has banned the person with the most posts in a forum, I banned the number one poster. I removed a very active publicly popular moderator, not many, a few, who had lost their way, who I just gotten to a point where they were utilizing their abilities in not a good way, and they couldn’t be rehabilitated or they didn’t want to be, and so I think that for me, there’s a lot of things that go into communities that are challenging at first but become easier, and there’s a lot of things that at this point I’ve seen so much. So much is not new, so much it’s just simple, or that, or this, or this. The one thing that I think it gets a little easier, but it never really gets easy is when someone who has become a leader in the community, who you trusted, who you once thought very highly of goes down a different path. For me, that’s one of the most stressful things is when veteran members use their influence in a way that is damaging to the community.
That’s just the tough thing because every time you do that, you lose a small circle with them. Every time that you have to take any kind of punitive action. We’re not talking about kicking someone off, but just removing them from staff, or telling them they can’t do this thing, or hey, I’ve been here so long. I’ve done all these things. Who are you to tell me this? Who are you tell me that? Everyone has their circle of people who are going to go with them wherever they are or wherever agree with them, or whatever it is. In each of those cases literally the number one poster on the community, he lost it. It was over, and it was time for him to go for the betterment of the community. Then there was a group of people who was like, “How could you do that?
How could you do that thing? I’m never coming back here. What a megalomaniac you are, Patrick.” That’s one of my favorite words I got called. I’ve been called everything like every community professional, Hitler Stalin, Gestapo. One of my favorite ones, I don’t want to say the actual word, but dirty Irish F bag.
[00:36:16] Bailey Richardson: Great.
[00:36:16] Patrick O’Keefe: That was a creative one, so I got a lot of things.
[00:36:19] Bailey Richardson: This feel cathartic. I feel like you…[laughs]
[00:36:22] Patrick O’Keefe: I feel like everyone’s got those stories-
[00:36:24] Bailey Richardson: Everyone needs to get this off their chest.
[00:36:26] Patrick O’Keefe: – but I think that the main thing is I find it hard to have community without standards, and those standards don’t have to be– I’m not talking about don’t say the F word or no profanity. Communities are all kind. I saw in your Twitter you highlighted the NRA and how they maintain their membership and how they tap into a community principles to do that.
You can have standards, things I disagree with, groups I disagree with. It’s not about like what I see as standards personally, but every community has different standards. That’s what brings people together in a shared space. If you’re not willing to take someone off of the platform, or to remove them from some element of the community, sometimes it’s just tough for me to think of that as a community because if one person can skew the entire community, then I’m not sure that you have anything more than a play for the person who yells the loudest can apply their will to the community.
For me, the more experienced members should be held to even a harsher standard. I have a luxury of dealing with a lot of smaller communities, and I’ve had conversations with members before where I’m like, “Hey, you did this thing. You set an example for other members to follow here. When new members join, they look at you and they see what you contributed and they think that’s the way they should act. If you’re not holding up that standard, something has to change because it’s not fair to the community.”
I’ve told people before that the community doesn’t change for you, you change for the community if you want to be a part of it if you’re not already part of the group that it serves. That’s sort of a lot of different thoughts, but that’s where I come down on it.
It’s necessary, it’s so necessary to be willing to have those harsh conversations, and it is one of the toughest parts of my job is when like I said, someone that I’ve come to like, respect has contributed to the community goes on a different path, it’s tough, that’s really hard.
[00:38:08] Bailey Richardson: Yes. Well, I love what you said though about saying that leaders should be held to a high standard. I totally agree with that, and I think the challenge as a community manager is communicating the standard that you want people to live up to sometimes. I think that was something that I feel like standards in some ways aren’t just things that people could cross and fail, but if you’re a great community manager, I think, you make clear what the standard that people could reach towards.
I played a sport in college and as you get older on the team, your job is to try to show other people that are younger how to be excellent, or how to contribute in a great way, but if people don’t tell you that that’s your responsibility, you may never consciously realize it. I think that’s one of the tasks that someone who’s at HQ is to get people that acknowledgment that, “Hey, with great power, comes great responsibility of a big platform.” Like you’re a big piece of how this community will be shaped and go into the future.
I think just that sense of it’s a communication challenge for a community manager to make sure that people understand that as they become more and more significant on a platform.
[00:39:19] Patrick O’Keefe: In our pre-show question where you said that “Communities are great for business, but are communities a business in and of themselves? If so, when are they most valuable and how can we keep these spaces ethical?” Interested in all of that. Most of all the second part how to keep these spaces ethical. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Why is that on your mind?
[00:39:39] Bailey Richardson: I think it’s on my mind just because I am living in a world where everything seems capitalist. [chuckles] There’s so many parts of our lives and I think someone who’s been on the internet in such an engaged way as you have for so long– I am a student enough to hear people speaking like Howard Rheingold about the earlier days of the internet and perhaps this is just looking back and thinking the world was perfect before but there’s just a feeling that every square inch of our lives is becoming a capitalist exercise and human relationships, human friendships are sacred things in my opinion and a are so important to our well-being and so important to the way our society and culture shapes and forms and when you overlap that with a business or something that is a profit model sometimes the business has priorities that change or market pressures that change and if the business is in the center of those social relationships that can affect the way the group works with each other. Sounds like a reasonably abstract way to talk about it but I think I’m just like as a young psycho-progressive person concerned that the world around me always has an ulterior motive sitting in the middle of it and I’m an idealist.
I want to make sure that with my work I’m truly connecting people as much as I possibly can around a passion point around something that I feel is quite pure, quite meaningful to them and I think it’s always hard in any form of work when there’s a business model and that’s part of the goal to keep that sense of service pure. Does that make sense? That’s I suppose where my worry always comes in.
[00:41:28] Patrick O’Keefe: It does, and you talked about it in the abstract so I’ll just point out something that’s a bit less abstract that I think about in cases like this just to be the counterbalance I guess in some way. There’s this thing that companies sometimes do, it’s really revolving around ending community and what that looks like and how much you care about that. Sunsetting is a term that people use.
[00:41:48] Bailey Richardson: Everyone loves a sunset.
[00:41:50] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, exactly, and then you’re dead and it’s over but I hate it when I don’t see it anymore, but great up until then. There’s just so many things that occur, so many instances of cases where companies are happy to tap into the goodwill, retention, loyalty that comes out of some sort of community building exercise, operation, platform whatever, but then they don’t plan to close right, they don’t plan to end properly. Startups to this round-up cash, the burn rate it’s they’re dying and boy, it sure can shut down the community right? Even companies that could afford to do better often don’t.
One example of this is IMDb, in my opinion, when how they close their forums a few years back and we did a show about that. We know IMDb is owned by Amazon. They’ve got cash. They had a forum that had been online for 18 years and in the context of I don’t know cultural anthropology or just the state of movie criticism and how it evolved over a period of time, IMDb is meaningful.
However, you view that as a discipline or just a thing people do whatever it is, movie criticism evolved with the internet and IMDb is a big part of that and they pretty much said in two weeks this thing that’s 18 years old is gone. That’s just no good. I can’t get behind that. They tried to pass it off as like toxicity. Let’s say that’s true. Still, two weeks is bad even if that’s true you have to do better with people who have been on your site for two decades contributing their thoughts to a platform, you have to treat them better than that. If you can afford to you absolutely should have and they could and they just chose not to and they wiped it off like it didn’t matter and yet there are people, many people one of them are five people this is IMDb, it was there for 20 years this forum.
People who got married who built all their friendships there, who contributed 10,000 posts, who did all of these great things and the goodbye is “hey it’s gone in two weeks.” That is awful. I think you can tie that on some level to the concern that you’re discussing about a capitalist approach to things is that there’s just not a respectful way to deal with people. It kills me when I see that sort of stuff, it kills me when things are shut down or changed with a lack of and whatever you want to call it, a lack of a human approach, a lack of respect. It’s the easiest example I can draw from.
[00:44:13] Bailey Richardson: I think for me when you’ve existed in those communities or you’ve gotten to know those people I feel like there’s something quite fragile about someone showing up for something that they care so much about that they contribute like an outsized amount of effort to with very little expectation of any kind of financial or real reward in their life. It feels sacred to me when people show up for a platform, show up in person, build meaning in their lives with other people and I think for me the thing that I just worry most about is the reality of business is that ensuring those people’s enjoyment, happiness, and respect is not the primary goal of the public market or the new person who comes into a CMO or branding role, like businesses are these separate entities. There is not complete alignment with the people who show up to build them or have passion and when you know those people personally, it’s just painful to see them let down when you know the purity of the way they showed up for you, and when you can’t match them with that, it’s just a difficult thing to carry around.
I think that’s on my mind a lot which is when I see people show up for passions whether it’s karate and soda like you or I love pool and mola mola ocean sunfish those things are things that bring me real joy and something that feels just it should be protected and treated as sacred. When it’s not it’s just a massive letdown for me.
[00:45:50] Patrick O’Keefe: I think that’s a good place. Bailey, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been great to chat with you.
[00:45:55] Bailey Richardson: Thanks, Patrick.
[00:45:56] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Bailey Richardson, partner at People & Company. Visit people-and.com for more details. Bailey is the co-author of the book Get Together, that’s gettogetherbook.com and the co-host of the Get Together podcast at gettogether.fm.
For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Thank you as well to Carol for her input on this episode.
For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. I’ll see you next time.
If you have any thoughts on this episode that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment, send me an email or a tweet. If you enjoy the show, we would be so grateful if you spread the word and supported Community Signal on Patreon.
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