An early Instagram employee offers advice on building meaningful communities

Top Liked Pictures on Instagram 2019

Bailey Richardson has looked at the community from two sides: she is intimately familiar with the commercial approach. He helped build a community on Instagram: he was one of the 13 employees of the photo app at the time Facebook acquired it for $ 1 billion. He also studies and supports grassroots and nonprofit organizers through his work at People & Co., a consultancy that guides groups of all sizes on how to build and support the community. She and her co-founders of People & Co., Kevin Huynh and Kai Elmer Sotto, put their best practices into a new book, Get Together, which Richardson considers a practical guide to help people come together. He recently spoke with Fast Company about what companies can learn from community organizers and vice versa. (The conversation has been edited for its length and clarity).

Fast Company: There is a perception that grassroots communities arise from a shared sense of purpose. But his book suggests that it is not so random.

Bailey Richardson: One of the things we hear over and over again when doing interviews with people who started communities, and in particular, more basic, is: “This was not strategic, this was not planned, it just happened.” The reality is that you start to see patterns of behavior. After leaving Instagram, I wondered if what we did on Instagram was replicable. And I started communicating with people in jobs that were quite similar to mine, a community administrator on YouTube, the first administrator of the Google Hangouts community, the first administrator of the SoundCloud community. And in those conversations I began to realize that, in fact, we had done some of the same work. And we began to wonder if there were steps that could be as valuable for a base organizer as they are for someone who is working in an online forum.

p-1-90437174-an-early-instagram-employee-offers-advice-on-building-meaningful-communities.jpg (937×527)

FC: Why did you write the book?

BR: I couldn’t find [a book that would provide] clear practical steps on how to organize the community, along with inspiring stories. This is the book I wish I had when I was working on Instagram in the early days. I tried to investigate about people in groups that had not been through what we were going through, and I couldn’t find anything other than [case studies on] CrossFit and Harley Davidson. I am a queer woman, and I felt that we could do a better [job] by providing a source of inspiration for people. . . with stories that are diverse and [show] different types of communities.

FC: Harley Davidson and CrossFit are interesting examples, because those are communities that can border cult followers. What distinguishes the cult community?

BR: I think a cult traditionally has a leader and a hierarchical structure. The reason I am interested in the communities is that they are less like a fixed price dinner and more like a shared meal, a truly more collaborative and democratic non-hierarchical way for groups of people to work together. The companies that are doing well in my opinion are those [willing] to give up an element of control and have to trust their customers, their partners, their collaborators, their users. And that to me is very exciting.

FC: Why are communities so important these days, especially when much of life is lived online?

BR: They make companies more ethical and more in touch with their customer bases.

FC: What are some of the lessons that business leaders can draw from grassroots communities and how can they apply these lessons to a more traditional and, by definition, more hierarchical business structure?

BR: The number one fear for someone who is organizing a club or a community of users is that nobody shows up. The [advice] we offer people is: don’t just talk to a faceless audience, really find people who have a deep passion and make personal contact to make sure those people feel part of whatever they are starting. You just have to go out and start gathering people. But the main message that is really specific for companies is that community management or community development is that it is not about managing people, controlling people. It’s about developing leaders. Building a group, a community is, in essence, a leadership development.

FC: What can community leaders learn from the business world?

BR: I play basketball in the women’s basketball team here in New York, which is specifically for women who are bad at basketball. That format, of competing with him, is so remarkable and so special, and it really brings out the best in people, [especially] in New York in this very competitive environment. We all leave and have fun. [The person] who runs it has never thought of teaching another person in another city to [create a similar project]. But I think: how can I turn this into a template [that works for] someone further from me? Companies are very good at creating those processes, documenting things and having divisions and scale. And I think there are some things that people are doing for pure local passion to make sure they feel more connected. But they don’t have that kind of business audacity to think about how they could grow and scale it.