Building communities with the standard you walk past

October 11, 2020

Bailey Richardson – TALKS WITH PETRI

Bailey Richardson talks about community building on Instagram’s early years, The Social Dilemma phenomenon including her interview in the documentary, and how to find yourself in hedgehog cafes in Tokyo.


Bailey started People & Company with Kai and Kevin in 2016. Their mission is to help people bring their people together. They interview extraordinary people organizers on their podcast and they published a book on how to build communities today.

In the past, she grew the early community around Instagram, where she was one of the first employees. She has also worked at 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 Queer Pool Club.

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(NOTE: The text may contain errors, misconceptions and even comical unintended contexts. Please use it only as a reference to the actual audio conversation from where it has been transcribed.)

Petri: Hey Bailey, how are you doing?

Bailey: Good. How are you?

Petri: I’m pretty good. And it’s so awesome that you were in my show because you’re the latest movie star!

Bailey: Yeah, I’m having my what I assume will be my only movie star moment of my entire life. I think this is as much as I want to do, but there last two weeks has been my movie star moment.

Petri: I think you’re just getting started. Maybe there are already some other people casting you into things you don’t know about yet!

Bailey: That’s awesome. I’m hoping to be in a superhero film at some point. Maybe that’s my step up from this Internet documentary straight into Wonder Woman and putting it out there right now. Someone please, please select me. I will compete for the position.

Petri: What is the social dilemma?

Bailey: I can tell you what the film is, but are you asking the bigger question?

Petri: You can take the questions whichever way you like.

Bailey: I’ll take it maybe the most straightforward way. This film just came out called The Social Dilemma that I was interviewed for about a year and a half. The backstory is that the director is a guy named Jeff Orlowski, who went to the same university as I did.

My freshman advisor messaged me a while ago and really encouraged me to talk to him because she really liked him and appreciated his work. And so I spoke to Jeff and his team, and I really liked him. And he told me that he was working with Tristan Harris and a number of other people in tech to make a film about how to make tech more ethical and the state of social media.

And he had read an article that I was in the Washington post just about two years ago. It was about my decision. I deleted my Instagram account and a reporter found out about it. And I spoke out about my personal relationship to Instagram and that decision in the article.

And he had seen that and asked me if I wanted to be involved in the film. And I was just explaining off the air that I’ve never done an experience of the major film before. It was very new to me but I was interviewed for two hours. There were like three cameras on me. They set up a whole set for it. And at the time when you’re doing that big period of interviewing I didn’t know where the film would go, what it would look like and kind of slowly went to Sundance. And then I found out it was going to be on Netflix and all the way through I thought maybe no one would really watch it.

I’ve found being in technology that there’s a pretty limited number of people that care about tech outside of their personal experience of it. Things like Facebook and Instagram, people care about their lives on there. But I don’t usually think that the general world population cares about industry news or industry critique. But it has just been a huge film, for a number of reasons. One of which is we’re all stuck inside and maybe Netflix is just extremely powerful right now, but lots of people have seen it. It was like the number four film in the US and the number three film in India. It has just been way more popular and distributed than I expected it to.

We were joking because I think I’m in the film for like seven seconds including the trailer. And so it’s just a funny relationship to a film where you just sat in a room in front of the camera. But when something gets put up on Netflix or made into a film it has weight to it and people relate to that in some kind of very special way.

It’s a film about social media and how it shows up in our lives today and how it’s affecting society and how people connect to each other.

We can talk about that more if you want to, but a lot of people are talking about that and going back and forth on the Internet right now about what they got right and what they didn’t get right.

Petri: Well, that’s one thing to think about what happened before, obviously you were one of the first ones in Instagram, within the first 13 employees in the company. You were really figuring out social media. I think Instagram was probably the first one really getting to the mobile and genuine mobile app or social app. Facebook and others were just converting and they came later.

What do you think? What is the next one? I think that’s more interesting. TikTok is already old news. What’s going to happen in the next 10 years? What is the thing now? We are in 2020 and 2010 was 10 years ago. So there’s probably something new coming up and people are tired of…if you’ve been deleting Instagram and do actually know how many people from the documentary don’t have their personal accounts?

Bailey: I do know that there’s this trend of a lot of them not letting their kids use Instagram or social media. I know anecdotally that a large number of the original 13 employees, including the two founders of Instagram, really don’t use their account very much.

I think there’s something about these things that maybe there’s like a line with usage of…Maybe there’s like a light almost addiction where you use it kind of regularly. But when you work on the products, when they’re what you’re thinking about all day or even cruising through or testing on all these mobile devices these engineers would have on their desks testing, making sure these apps work. You just get so deep into it.

I was on it so much because I worked on it that I was happy to be off of it when I wasn’t at work I wasn’t on those things. It’s pretty common for people to intentionally figure out at some point if you work on social media that you need to build a boundary between yourself and those spaces.

Some of it is maybe philosophical. Some people think it’s not good for them. Although, I think some of the science is inconclusive on that. But some of it’s just like I spend enough time in a digital format and a digital interface and when I’m not at work, I’m going to not do that and I need boundaries to get there.

Petri: Let’s get to the amazing Instagram stories a bit later. How about building some communities first?

Bailey: Great. Let’s do it.

Petri: Yeah. This year has been a bit weird. Is this the weirdest year ever, at least in our generation? A lot of people need to go online. A lot of startups need to figure out how to reach their audience, how to do sales and marketing nowadays. Can a startup, growth company build a community, or is it just a fancy word for just regular customers?

Bailey: I can tell you what I think. In the last 30 years since the Internet has increasingly become a part of every everyone’s life or most people’s lives, I think it’s really changed how we relate to the word community. When I’ve interviewed people… For context, I’ve interviewed just tons of people who organize communities and ended up talking to everyday people about community that I just happened to meet because that’s what I focus on professionally.

When I talk to people who are over the age of 60 or 65, the word community to them is very physical. It’s like the town they live in or their neighbourhood or the church that they go to or where they practice something spiritually. And because of the Internet, we’re able to connect to each other about a passion in a different way, in a non- geographically limited way.

People who follow the world get that innately, but I find that a byproduct of that has been that people are using the word community in a pretty nonspecific way. We detached the word from our physical location and we’re trying to like land it again. There are different people with different takes on this. It is basically an audience.

A community is a user base, a community. For me, it’s not. And I think this is an unfolding argument that is still in the midst of being played out. But if I take aside, for me, I feel like a community is a group of people that face each other instead of face the stage as it were.

It’s people who are actually connecting to each other instead of just to a public figure or a brand or an organization or a product that they appreciate. They’re not facing the stage. They’re facing each other or they’re able to interact with each other somewhat regularly.

It’s important to have a line in the sand there for what is a community and to me, it’s people who keep coming together or something they care about. It’s not just any passive group. It’s a group that actually engages with each other. Just in terms of definition, I’m not talking about community as just another term for your social media following or an audience or an entire user base, which I think a lot of tech companies are using that euphemism or even just like your customer support organ. I’m trying to land it in the modern evolution of what maybe my grandma would have thought it to be.

I think it is possible for startups to emerge from a community or emerged to serve a community or grow a community. We talked about how I worked at Instagram in the early days and Instagram grew with a group of people that iPhonegraphers in those early days. The first users were visualists who had new technology in their hands. An iPhone 4 that had a great camera. One of the first really great cameras for smartphones.

Petri: That was a great phone!

Bailey: Yeah, it was a great phone. Instagram launched right then when all of a sudden all these designers and tech people had a camera in their hands that could do so much more than any other kind of thing that we had in our pocket or the whole previous world that we had lived in or the previous version of human life.

Instagram served that community and there are other examples out there too, but I hear you may be jumping in.

Petri: Yeah, I’m just eager to ask the two questions. They are so trivial and so important. Which one was first iPhone 4 or Instagram? Was it done in a way that, hey, this is an awesome phone. Now, we can do these things or was it before? And the more important question, what was the very first published picture?

Bailey: Oh, great questions. I’ve actually never fact-checked this, but as far as I know, the iPhone 4 was first or news of the iPhone 4 helped drive Instagram’s product. Kevin and Mike, who started it, knew that the camera was better and they knew that the hardware everyone was using was going to improve. And that was part of why they included photos in the product.

The very first picture is a picture… There are a couple of complications to it. Because one of the reasons Instagram was so great was everyone who was in the beta talks about it like it was such a special beta experience, which I have never really heard anyone say that in any other context. The beta app was called Bourbon and the company actually was called Bourbon, Inc. until it was acquired by Facebook.

Petri: I wonder when it was established what was the establishment where it was done…

Bailey: Yeah, exactly. Kevin and Mike were cocktail nerds back in the day. This app was actually a location-based product to start with. They thought maybe locations were the centre of it. And one of the early users actually became an early engineer, a guy named Gregor Hochmuth, and Greg was a photographer.

His dad was a filmmaker and also an engineer. He was using different apps that had filters for your photos when he would upload his locations on Bourbon. And Kevin the founder’s girlfriend Nicole saw Greg’s pictures and was like, why don’t you make more pictures like that? Like Greg’s, I like those.

And so Kevin, the founder, decided to write code that made filters. He took the first photo in the beta with those signature Instagram filters in Todos Santos, Mexico while on a vacation of his flip flop. I know what the photo looks like and if you Google it, you can find it. I think if you scroll far enough back in on Kevin’s account, you can find it.

But it’s a pretty uninspiring photo, in my opinion. Kevin’s not a bad photographer, but nobody needs to look at a regular dudes flip-flop.

Petri: When you started on Instagram, you were also checking what’s been done before. YouTube was one of them. It was early days of Youtube as well. So what did you learn from YouTube and what did you do differently or Instagram did differently? You came a bit later on. The use case was a bit different.

Bailey: I actually think I’ve studied YouTube since working at Instagram but I’d say the biggest piece of inspiration was lightly Tumbler, but mostly Flickr. A lot of the people who were early Instagram’s suggested users had been the younger people in the wave of Flickr photo-sharing. I’m not so sure Flickr was like a different product and they didn’t go mobile. They have now, but not super successfully. They have people who are really passionate about photography and sharing their photography publicly.

Petri: It’s more a pro thing. It’s not casual photos. It was more…

Bailey: Yeah, it was intentional. And, they make them available to other people publicly. Public photo-sharing was a big thing that Instagram decided to do that a lot of investors said would never work. That decision to actually want to share publicly was like a key insight and a key bet. Flickr had done that years before, and they had seen a community emerge. There are people like a user Pei Ketron and a user Chris Connolly and a bunch of the folks that really set the tone in the early days of Instagram had been in the Flickr community and had had meetups with other photographers that they liked and followed and created online relationships with each other.

And I actually think that more than anything, our users taught us. Those people who had been a part of the early Flickr community they led creating such a generous and warm place on Instagram. This culture of meeting up with each other and supporting each other and giving each other creative feedback, which I think you can do in photography about the composition or the lighting or whatever.

We learned a lot from Flickr in terms of just creative sharing and that creativity. And certainly YouTube, early there were decisions that they made that were quite similar to the ones that we made, which were about curating and elevating great content on the site.

YouTube if you find the drags of YouTube this content can be pretty bad. I don’t necessarily mean offensive or political, I mean, just low quality.

Petri: The devices were not awesome at the time. iPhone 3 at the time or whatever. I don’t even remember. How could you actually make videos at the time?

Bailey: The quality was low and also making a video is just hard. It’s much harder than making a good photograph. You have to edit it together. There’s a lot of elements and this woman, Mia Quagliarello, who actually now helps interview for a podcast. She’s a correspondent on our podcast.

She was the first community manager at YouTube. And community for them meant some parts support, but mostly editorial, which is what it meant for Instagram too. And her job was to feature really great use cases on YouTube. Use cases that illuminated what was possible on the platform outside of just like the pedestrian or average content and to make sure that when people came to YouTube, they found things that were entertaining or interesting.

That was a lot of what we did on Instagram was setting the tone and also expanding what people thought was possible or what was available on this little app by curating it. And by intentionally looking through the platform to find the most interesting use cases and to elevate them.

That was something that YouTube did very early on and that we absolutely followed.

Petri: There’re so many things that my buffer is overloading. But summarizing and trying to pick the golden nuggets from here so other people can build communities as well and maybe businesses. First, some passionate people come together for whatever reason, photographing or whatever the common cause, which puts them together.

Then they start to do things together. Then if you are building a product, which is helping them in some way or form. Then you’re just observing what they are doing and you pick up, curate. You’re not telling this is the way it’s supposed to be done. This is the way we designed it. You listen to the community.

Do you let the community drive the direction of the product as well?

Bailey: Yeah.

Petri: How much did you say that, no, we don’t want to go that direction. We actually want to go that way because that’s what I’ve business reasons to go that way?

Bailey: Yeah. I think there was some of both. This is where I give a lot of the credit to the product team. Our team was like…I’m stealing this from SoundCloud’s first community manager, a guy named David Noel. He described his job as being the sponge that absorbed all the water from users out in the world. And then he had to squeeze the water back to the product teams. And that was some of what we did and noticing there were times when too much time would pass before we had worked on creative tools and the filters weren’t getting used or other filter apps were getting popular and kind of surfacing that insight back to the product teams and letting them decide whether or not it’s a priority. There are decisions throughout instagram’s life, where we did do something that the community wanted. And there are examples where we didn’t. I think one big example is regramming. The decision to not build that into the product.

Kevin and Mike had a really strong perspective that you should be sharing your photos from your life or like photos that you’ve chosen to post instead of just putting things on your own profile that are from other people. They could have generated a lot more content early if they had let people regram, but they never put that in the product.

Now, it is something a lot of people were doing by going into other apps and figuring out how to do it. But it just wasn’t the top priority for Instagram, nor was it the vision of the space and experience that the product team thought would be the most meaningful to people. I think there’s a little bit of both. There’re some of these problems that we see people running into and we can solve. Another example is like the ability to delete your own comments.

If someone comments something on your own photo and you don’t like it, you can remove it. That’s something the community team is really aware of and can bring back to the product team, but there are other things that the product team decides isn’t right for the direction the company is going in.

Petri: Thinking Instagram, it has quite distinct values. I’m talking about the original Instagram and probably not the Facebook times so much. It’s quite family-friendly and nice in the values considered to, for example, to more laissez-faire Twitter. Was that intentional in the beginning? If you start to see that we don’t want to have that type of community. We want to be more friendly or something. What are the ways to guide and try to get the right type of people to the community?

Bailey: The number one way to create a culture is to set a standard. One of my favourite quotes is the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. When someone comes into a new room, like a dinner party or a new room online, we pay attention to social dynamics and what is being featured or the way people are interacting.

We absorb those and we replicate them. And for us, we had some tools to set the standard that people would walk past. One of them was we had this suggested user list in the early days. Often on the Internet up until that point, a lot of people who were suggested users on like Twitter, for example, were just famous people.

It was just like people you might know, and it’s kind of a growth tactic. We need to just get content in your feed. Follow these people: Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, or whatever. On Instagram, we handpicked those suggested users for probably three or four years every week or every two weeks.

Petri: Or was it you who handpicked them?

Bailey: Me and then some previous people before I had joined put the first list together, and then I did it for a long time. Then we started building a team where we had a woman who worked in Brazil, a woman who worked in Japan. People around the world who could do that for their own countries and cultures. When you signed up for Instagram, you would get some suggestions of people to follow.

There are people on your contact book and then it was people who were suggested. And that would be people that we found who were taking their own photographs. Mobile photos was the requirement. If you were just finding other photos or using a DSLR, we didn’t feature you because it was confusing to new users.

Like how did they do that? If most people were going to just be using their mobile phones and we wanted to show them what not totally unreachable quality content was, but what interesting quality content was in terms of mobile photography. We would find all these different people all around the world.

There was a man who rode around the world on his bike in London and cycled completely around the world and shared his story on Instagram. There was a man in the air force reserve who was in charge of refuelling planes, and he would take pictures from his mobile phone laying on his stomach looking out the windows as the beam of a plane with fuel would attach to a fighter jet.

There was a guy who was a monk early in Nepal who was taking photos on Instagram. There’re so many different creative use cases. Our team was in charge of putting those people forward with what’s possible. And that some level of creativity and thoughtfulness in your mobile content was what Instagram was about.

And it was also part of what we did. We would see did these people that we were suggesting or we were going to put on the suggested user list, did they respond to their comments? Were they kind? Were they warm? At the time, there were a lot of other places on the Internet, including YouTube, which the comments were a joke.

They were so dark. People were so mean to each other. And Instagram was a very friendly place in the beginning. And I think some of that was because, like I said, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. And we were really intentional about the first experiences people had on Instagram and who they followed and what was elevated as what the platform celebrated.

Petri: So you’re saying as well that people were also observing how you should respond because obviously those people were also been on Youtube. Maybe they were giving some nasty comments there, but then they look around and see that, well, Instagram doesn’t really work that way. Maybe I just have to use kinder words here.

Bailey: It groundswells when the people who have a big following treat you kindly that like chose you. That’s how I should be acting back. So I think that people are pretty socially attuned. Maybe even more so than we give them credit for.

They don’t understand the ins and outs of product development, but people are pretty socially self-aware and aware of the spaces that they’re in. At least, I believe that.

Petri: When you joined Instagram, Instagram suggested you some famous people. It was not such that you have some content to look, but it was also setting the tone for your experience of what to expect and how to behave or what’s that a consequence or you just realized a bit later? Or was it intentional that you want to show the good role models before you start to push your own content and ways to do things?

Bailey: It was a hundred per cent intentional and it was intentional all the way from the beta group. And before I worked there, Kevin and Mike were very intentional about who their first users were. Because there’re two words in social media. One is social and one is media. And I think Instagram in the very early days felt as fresh as maybe like MTV did in the early nineties or late eighties.

It was just different. The content was different. It was fresh. It was exciting. It was unique. That’s one of the challenges for whatever’s next. There might be many things that are next, but people need to feel like this is fresh and exciting and new and different.

And at the time other social media platforms…In Twitter, there weren’t really pictures. And on Facebook, it was a lot of pretty low quality, very personal photos. Me with my friends doing something like standing in front of a view and Instagram was more about people’s interests had an artistic aesthetic bent to it.

The quality of the photos were higher. We knew that there was also just something about people realizing this is a new and exciting place that could be only communicated if the people you saw when you logged in the content you saw when you logged in was new and fresh. It was very intentional.

All of these things were very intentional who we put in front of new users and why. One thing I see in people who are building platforms and building social media spaces or spaces that aspire to be social is oftentimes almost the science of acquisition is so well discussed. How to build virality into your product, how to acquire new users, make embed codes.

We make a web version. We make it possible to other platforms and VCs are like breathing down founders’ necks trying to see numbers that are just like how many people are in the platform. Although, I think savvy VCs look at their engagement levels, but I often see people just go straight to acquisition and straight to new users and just trying to pour new people in.

And with a social platform if you don’t have engagement if you don’t have a quality base of content and people creating that content to start with. You’re going to have a leaky bucket. New users are going to come in and there’s not going to be anything for them. You have to grow more slowly than I think many people want to.

You have to create a culture and set a tone with a small group of people before you just start pouring new people into the space.

Petri: Is there a critical mass, how many people you need to get to have a strong community started after which you can start to grow more, scale the community? Are there any numbers or can you give some kind of guidelines that when it’s time to crank up?

Bailey: It depends on the product you’re making. Maybe something like Instagram with the single-feed versus like Quora with all of these different questions and answers. It’s probably different answers for different people. But Paul Graham has a good arbitrary number, which I’ll just use here.

And I use it with a lot of people because I think sometimes you just need to set goals and run at them. He says, get a hundred people who love your product, who really love it, focus more on that than the total number of people. If you have a spreadsheet of names of hundred people who love your product, that is your first goal as a founder, like love it.

And that, I think is what I tell people to do. A hundred of the users that you want, who love your product. That is the first step, and it’s not the step number 10. At a later stage of your company, you’ll have different numbers and you’ll have different goals, but you can’t skip step one, which is to get a hundred people who love it.

 Petri: Do you start to curate or nurture new leaders too, because obviously you cannot do all the things by yourself and you should not do things for people. I read the book, it’s a really good book. Everybody should read it.

Bailey: Thank you.

Petri: How do you do that in a proper way? Because, as you mentioned on Instagram’s case you had people pretty much in all the different nations, knowing the local people and how to start to build the communities in those places?

Bailey: You need to have some understanding of your business opportunity. Where do you want to go next? Where is the next stage of this thing and what community do you need to grow in order to get there? In Instagram’s case, when we launched Android we didn’t have many users in Brazil or Korea at that time because it’s such Android heavy countries.

In Instagram’s case, in terms of developing new leaders, we knew when we were launching Android, that people were going to join in countries like Brazil and in Korea, where Android was really strong. And when they joined, we needed to have people to show them in a suggested user list who spoke their language and to photograph the cities they lived in.

I spent a lot of time looking for people who were already on Instagram using iOS in Korea and Brazil to feature for our Android launch in the signup flow. Thinking about the way we describe in our book, no matter what community you’re trying to build or cultivate, whether it’s a digital one, whether it’s an in-person one if you want to grow the community, the key to growing a community isn’t management and it’s cultivating leaders, new leaders.

When you’re cultivating new leaders, you want to look for two things. One is, are they genuine? Are they showing up because they really believe in the purpose of the community, whether it’s spreading creativity or emotional support or fandom? Are they sincere in that connection to the community’s purpose?

And then are they qualified? Are they able to do what you might ask of them in that leadership role? For Instagram in a very straightforward way that was could they take quality pictures and were they regularly contributing?

But for a chapter-based community or a physical community, we spoke to a woman in our research who started something called the queer soup night, which is an event-based fundraiser that happens like once a month in pre-COVID times in New York where a queer chef makes us soup and then people come and it’s donation only.

And all the money gets directed towards one nonprofit each session. She got all these new chapters that wanted to open the queer soup night in Portland, a queer soup night in Gainesville. And she makes sure that the founding teams, their version of qualification is they need to have a background in cooking and a background in event production because if they don’t have those things, they’re not going to be able to put on these events.

If you’re at a stage where you’re thinking about trying to grow a community, Look for people out there who have already shown up if possible or are connected to your brand or your business, and depending on your business opportunity try to figure out if they’re genuine and qualified in their ability to do what you’re asking of them.

Petri: Is it actually possible to build purely a digital community? I mean that often we want to meet people in real life, IRL. Nowadays it’s maybe not even possible. It’s a bit more low-band communication. There’re a lot of Discord groups.

There’re a lot of different Reddit subgroups, stuff like that, but are there real communities in that sense? Is it hard or is it easy or is it just different? What is your take?

Bailey: When I was first working in community as a profession back in 2012, a lot of people talked about the community landscape as is it an online community or an offline community? And up until COVID, I would say that pretty much all communities are both. There’re some exceptions. There are some offline communities. Maybe like basketball teams or something don’t have a watering hole online where they communicate. Everyone’s not in a WhatsApp thread or a Facebook group or something. Increasingly I think a lot of these offline things have some digital space where members can communicate to each other. And in terms of online communities, it is exactly what you said.

For many online communities, they form because geographically people aren’t living near each other who have a similar interest in personal finance or flying or gender politics or some physical disability or challenge that they’re facing. But often you hear these stories about these online communities wanting to meet up every once in a while, or members wanting to meet each other if they really develop strong relationships.

Both of these things are a hundred per cent possible and they both really do exist in the world, but both of them in pure forms. But I think increasingly you see communities want to do both. Both meet up in person every once in a while and also communicate online when they don’t usually meet online.

But the trend that I’m seeing that I think is most interesting, is that I don’t know if it makes sense to actually do your first action to start a community offline anymore. And I’ll tell you what I mean. The people that I spoke to who work at Facebook on the groups teams, they’ve seen so many versions of people almost like posting on Facebook or starting a group to see like, hey, are there any other people out there like this?

And sometimes that feedback and digital space is either clear enough that yes, there are, or no, there aren’t that someone then can go forward with the investment in a deeper way. It’s almost like the first natural thing to do these days would be to put something up on your Instagram or your Facebook or social place.

And say, hey, does anyone want to start a run club with me? Or does anybody want to talk about chronic illnesses or does anybody want to nerd out about Star Wars or the latest Star Wars and to maybe fire the first signal online because of the most socially low risk and then from there to possibly do things in person or to do things that are more physical. I’ve seen a few versions of that where a choir that started in Toronto just started with a Facebook post of, hey, does anybody want to do this? And they get a resounding yes. And then they begin this in-person choir. The Internet is maybe at its strongest in a normal world, non-Covid world as a place to prototype and test. Is there anybody else out there like me and can I see that really simply and quickly with pretty low social risk?

Petri: I see a few things here, which might be a bit difficult nowadays. One of them is obviously the discoverability. There’s so much content. There’s so much stuff there. And even in your examples, there was almost like local people doing stuff. Maybe your friends or someone in your Facebook group, if you’re still there, Facebook friends or something. You usually reach out to people you already know but if you’re all alone and you’re the only Star Wars person among the trekkers you need to go somewhere else. You can go to some groups, subreddits but I think it just feels like that there’re so many opportunities and the cancel culture is another related issue a bit further on. It’s so easy to start something, but to actually make it to work in a bit longer term. I don’t know how quickly people usually just give up. There’re so many of these groups and after a while, there’s nothing left. It’s just completely quiet.

Bailey: I hope that someone works on the next place where people can find things that they’re passionate about because I was pretty skewed in Instagram because I worked in it. But I felt like a lot of people were able to meet other people who had really similar interests to them through that platform.

And I think YouTube maybe still does this in some way, but there’s how much stuff on those platforms right now. Also, there may be gobbling up all the smaller spaces, like the old forums and blogs where people would have connected before. One thing that we like to say when I’m talking to people about starting a community, is that it needs to come from a really personal place.

And talking about companies who are successful at this. I think that’s one reason why a lot of companies aren’t successful at this is that we can make decisions in our business lives and our professional lives that are so strategic. That makes sense in that context.

Businesses are about making money and surviving through making money. But I think a lot of the best, most thriving communities come from like an extremely personal place. So much so that the original organizer or founder or the person building the product and service of this specific community will stick with it enough for it to build momentum. Even when no one’s showing up they’ll keep doing it week in and week out, weekend and week out, weekend and week out. And just accrue that momentum over time. And if you’re just giving a community two to three months to get to 10 000 whatever you have some really hard strategic business goals.

You might be able to just buy people who care a little bit less but still meet that goal. And you might want to twist and bend your approaches for doing that. But community organizing is really an act of devotion and rallying passionate people takes time. You can’t really cheat code it.

One of the things that make building a community and building a business sometimes at odds is business priorities can shift and change. And sometimes the timelines are so tight that perhaps you don’t let a community breathe for long enough.

Petri: I’ve been picking up a few trends. One of them is that this might be the decade of more personal things, just like personal brands. Now COVID is putting a lot of people to do stuff online and starting to write newsletters or to start to use their own brand instead of building a company brand, obviously, there can be a company behind it but the idea that you see your face first, it’s more authentic. We probably are going in that direction in the next few years. The other thing I was just thinking was The Social Dilemma, the transactional nature of everything. We’re getting tired of that. Everything is so transactional, there’s so much of everything. It’s just like, you will swipe up or down or left or right whichever way, it never ends. And it’s just more and more, just a continuous overload. We want to slow down, more quality over quantity.

Personalities, authentic people I think is something which we are missing after all the plastic stuff and nice filters that are evening everything out.

Bailey: I hope so. I think both of those insights are really spot on. I remember realizing that the top YouTube accounts and the top Instagram accounts, besides YouTube’s own channel and Instagram’s own channel, which they had competitive advantages for growing, those are all people. The first brand doesn’t show up until like number 50 or something, or even further down the line.

And I remember noticing that and just thinking, I actually think we’ve been making a false assumption all along that people actually care more about brands or packaging things up as a brand. I think it had to do more with the distribution channels we had for information and who could buy a billboard and who couldn’t.

But now that media is like so accessible it’s pretty clear that human beings relate to other human beings. So much more powerfully than they do to a symbol or a company. In fact, a lot of people reject brands and companies and just don’t trust them at this point. The first insight is really right.

I don’t know where the biggest trend that I see happening in that direction is. I heard someone once say that platforms can offer fame, love and money to people. And often a platform just offers one or two of those things. But increasingly there are more platforms that offer all three. It’s like three very core human instinctual cravings fame, love and money…

Petri: Which platforms are providing you with love?

Bailey: Um, great question.

Petri: Because money was not in TikTok, for example. Previously you would get a lot of fame. Maybe a bit of love from the people as well. But money was out of the question. Fame and money that’s like YouTube as well, isn’t it?

Bailey: Yeah. I think there are some corners of Facebook groups from people I’ve talked to and maybe like a WhatsApp thread or certain Slack groups where they don’t have as many metrics about fame. Where you can actually feel sincerely connected to other people or bonded.

One space that I’m really curious about that I think does all three of these things, there are two platforms. One is Twitch and the other Substack. They’re both built around individual creators who people choose to follow as a trail guide either into on Twitch’s case, typically video game or in Substack’s case a topic that they want to follow this writer into.

There’s this core kind of creator who’s generating most of the content, but there’s all of these ways for the audience to interact with each other, which is new and exciting. And for those people to build relationships and also to connect back to the creator, and then they’re also offering streamers and writers a chance to get paid. In Twitch’s case, either get tips from their audience or get ad revenue from their content.

And then on Substack’s case to make revenue directly from their readers who appreciate these writers and what they’re saying. I am really interested in those three models because I think the promise of exposure, which is what I think people came to Instagram maybe for love and some now maybe more for fame.

But the promise of exposure feels maybe a little bit like monopoly money. It’s like, okay, so I have all these followers on Twitter, but I don’t know them. And, what does it do for me? Unless you’re Kim Kardashian or you’re pretty high up there it’s not necessarily a secure living either.

I’m curious about people who are actually going through economies of scale, able to support themselves doing their creative passion whether it’s video games or writing or we’ll see what comes next. But the downside of that is exactly what you said, which I talk about in the film. Which is that damn, it really starts to feel like the entire Internet is just a giant mall.

Every corner is about some kind of transaction. And that does get really tiring. And it makes you hope that someone’s going to come and do something radically different outside of just some of these like side projects that pop up. But I wish there were spaces where everything didn’t feel quite so transactional.

Petri: What are the places you hang out? You already mentioned some of those, but are there some emerging, new digital ways of finding the new instagram? Whatever it is, or maybe it’s just like offline and just to drink coffee and forget the rest.

Bailey: Yeah. I definitely do get a lot of joy from playing sports with friends. That’s my purest space. Digitally, a couple of places that I really like to be, one is I have enjoyed these voice-only apps. And I’m in Clubhouse, which is this semi-beta app, where a bunch of different people are in there and they can open up a room and then just have a conversation.

I don’t know if Clubhouse is going to get it exactly right. But I think there’s something interesting about that. About live conversation that’s not video or photo-based. I think that’s interesting.

Petri: Is it high quality enough? I was discussing with another person who was the lucky one to get an invite to the club as well. He said that he doesn’t feel like listening to them. It’s so low density in a sense of quality. You’re spending your time and you cannot just double speed or triple speed through discussing.

Bailey: That’s one of the tensions right now. They’re getting more professors and musicians who are playing in Clubhouse and people who are hosting conversations about topics that they’re really well versed in with people they’ve selected to come in. I feel like I’m able to listen in on three professors from two different from different universities around the world, and maybe some practitioners all together in the same place.

The other night I was listening to a woman and economist interviewing two of the leading psychological scientists, who were talking about social media and kind of in response to this film The Social Dilemma that I was in and I was in the audience. And so was Clubhouse’s founder.

And these professors were able to ask the founder questions that they had. And I just realised, I always feel like that one of the big challenges that we have is that people who are doing the deepest thinking about the world, academics and fellows are often really physically separated and not able to have casual conversations from people who are doing the building.

And then it was happening in their own Clubhouse. And I thought that was really cool. Sometimes there are really high-quality conversations and sometimes they’re extremely casual ones and you kind of pop in and out and just like bail on things that you don’t want to be in. One of the tensions is feeling you aren’t just there to listen to famous people.

If the quality is going to be good, maybe you’re just there to always be in the audience and not participate. It’s almost like too intimidating versus when the quality is low maybe you can participate as a regular person, but maybe you don’t feel like the content is super interesting.

Petri: Sounds like the new TedTalks.

Bailey: Exactly. That is the closest. It is like taking the experience of what I’ve heard the early Ted conferences were like online, just in terms of a lot of different, really interesting people, but it’s kind of like exclusive too, right? It’s exclusionary. Not anyone can get in there and you have to get like an invite and all that kind of stuff.

When those kinds of businesses or platforms try to grow the model doesn’t always hold. You feel like you’re always having a special conversation when you’re just putting with a stranger on the Internet who don’t have context about. I wonder about that, but I do think these voice apps feel alive and dynamic. But because you’re not in there with your photo or your video, it doesn’t feel so image-based, or about my body or how I look. And I appreciate that.

Petri: You can also do other stuff. I did an episode in the summer with Tom Mayer from Voicehub. That’s the European Clubhouse. We were talking about voice and maybe it was me who was phrasing this the decade of audio because there’s so much stuff. One of the cool things is that you can actually do other stuff because the video is not on. You can really chat and talk and jump in when you need and otherwise just make an excellent espresso or something.

Bailey: People are kind of sick of looking at their screens. And to be able to shut your phone and be there and go about and do whatever you want to do. Also learning and interacting is really nice right now especially during the pandemic.

But a couple of other platforms that I’m in and I’m excited about. One of them is in beta right now, but you can download it and it’s called Beams. It’s developed by a bunch of different Europeans and the product is a list product.

You can go like break a story or list of things or recommendations or recipe into picture and text, picture and text, picture, text, picture, and text. And if I want to share it with you, I want to share my favourite restaurants in New York City, or I want to document my favourite surf spots in New York or a recipe that I just cooked.

It allows me to just make a list that I keep forever and I can share and send to someone that wants to see that once they see something I know a lot about, or I care a lot about.

Petri: So it’s like Foursquare meets Notes.

Bailey: Yeah. It’s almost too maybe like a Pinterest that you make yourself except it’s kind of linear.

And I just get excited about that space because I think if you make a list or you break down the process of building something, you’re talking about something that you experienced, that you’re really loved and you’re really passionate about, and you want to share that experience or that knowledge with someone else.

And I find that people are most lit up and the best version of themselves in terms of their social interactions when they’re talking about their passions. They’re talking about things that they experienced or that they know a lot about, or they care a lot about. The format does a good job of pulling that information out of people.

I’m excited about that and we’ll see where that goes. And then the final thing that I’ll mention, which is kind of fun and a little bit radical is that one of my good friends who was an early engineer at Instagram has built an app called Untitled. And it’s not publicly available.

But it is old Instagram, so it’s Instagram without an algorithm. And it’s just the feed and photos and a user-curated discovery page. And he made it just because he missed this old format and he wanted to be able to see what his friends were up to and see creative things in the world.

And to have this version of Instagram that was made intentionally for my small group of friends that we get to use to see each other’s lives that don’t have major business incentives or an ad-model or this pressure of fame or posting too much and curating the hell out of what you post is awesome. I’m so happy with it. If I just had this, I would be totally content with seeing the people I cared about lives and the people I just don’t know by one degree of separation. There’s a lot that’s going to happen in the next three to five years and we’ll see how long this business has survived.

I feel like the market is dominated by some extremely wealthy, big players that tend to just buy the small guys. But I think we’ll be delighted and surprised by a lot of things that come out in the next five to seven years.

Petri: You mentioned passion. It’s all around us nowadays. And this is something I’ve been thinking. Everything is about passion economy more or less. You should consume things where you deeply care about the brand or you know what’s happening then you connect. Is this basically where everything is leading? You should be conscious of whatever you consume, whatever you do and should be passionate about those things? Is that getting a bit too much as well? Can I just be a bit stupid zombie sometimes and just not be too passionate about everything or is this the direction we’re going?

Bailey: I think that’s a great question. And it feels like a very realist European thing to say to an American. Yes, you’re totally right. There is a lot of that though. When I see the content on TikTok. There’s a lot of like goofy, funny, dumb I’m going to say shit. There’s a lot of goofy, funny, dumb shit on the Internet. I can watch a dog skateboarding down the street and just be like, wow. That’s funny. It’s not my passion. That’s funny. There’s a world out there for both of those things. In terms of the stuff that you share with total strangers, I just see that as a pretty good connective thread between people when you’re trying to acquaint yourself. If you can find with another stranger…whenever I find out someone’s a surfer, I love to surf. I can just get to another level with them instead of just being like, oh, where are you from? Where do you work? And, so I think kind of helping people connect over things that they know a lot about, or they give a damn about allows people who have no other context for each other to go a little deeper. So that’s why I get excited about it. But I totally agree with you that not everything has to be in that orientation.

Petri: How do you find people who love hedgehogs?

Bailey: The easiest way…

Petri: Don’t say you came to Instagram because of that!

Bailey: I know, well, there’s a lot of great ways and I am a person that loves hedgehogs. Let me tell you about that. The thing that is great about the Internet is if someone is really into hedgehogs, maybe they post a lot of photos of hedgehogs. They follow also a lot of hedgehogs.

Depending on whatever platform you’re on where there’s a follower model if you find one person who loves surfing or loves Shih Tzus, or is really into latte art. If they’re creating that content they a hundred percent are following people who are also like them. And so you can kind of go through these individually curated almost rabbit holes for sure.

Google still does a pretty good job. I am a hedgehog obsessed person and I was in Japan in January before the whole world shut down. And there are all these hedgehog cafes where you can walk in and hold hedgehogs and get your picture taken. Even in another country, I can just like put that I’m like hedgehog Tokyo.

So it’s not too hard to just find the tip of the iceberg and then it’s your job just to burrow in through different follower graphs is one great way.

Petri: Are there cafes like that in New York?

Bailey: This is going to reveal how much I know about hedgehogs. My permanent residence in the United States has been in New York and California. And those two States outlaw hedgehogs because they are carriers of foot and mouth disease. They’re not here. And if they are here, they’re illegal and I would love to know about them.

If anyone wants to drop me that tip, please let me know.

Petri: Am I in trouble now?

Bailey: If you’re listening and you have a hedgehog.

Petri: That was clever. You’re putting it out in my show.

Bailey: Yeah, exactly. Please, please pass a line through Signal or Telegram and let me know.

Petri: But unfortunately you’re not in social media. So you’re hard to find.

Bailey: I am, I’m on Twitter. You can totally DM me on Twitter. I leave that up for sure.

Petri: What is your favourite word?

Bailey: Right now, my favourite word is pepperonis. It’s a great word.

Petri: What is your least favourite word?

Bailey: The first thing that comes to mind is stupid. I don’t like the way it sounds and I don’t like people who call other people stupid. It’s an empty word. It’s a cruel, empty word.

Petri: What does turn you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Bailey: Conversations with other humans. Eye-contact. People who are good listeners trying to be a good listener, creating something new through conversation with another person.

Petri: What turns you off?

Bailey: I think ego or I don’t know if ego is the right word but ungenerous motivations.

Petri: What is your favourite curse word?

Bailey: Hm. Cool. Probably bugger. Bugger! Especially the way the English say, which might be like a super horrible word. I’m sorry. That’s a great one though.

Petri: Is this becoming a trend? All the Americans I’m interviewing they’re just speaking, the British words. Is it fancier?

Bailey: Oh, my God. Yeah, we’ve just been totally propagandad that British English is beautiful and appealing. A hundred per cent I fell to that.

Petri: What sound or noise do you love?

Bailey: I grew up in Northern California. And there’s a sound of ruffling eucalyptus leaves and the forest leaves that when the wind would go through them that is very soothing for me.

What sound or noise do you hate?

Living in New York, if you are driving and the light turns green and you are not already moving your car right when the light turns green, you get honked at. It’s almost laughable, but just pushing you to be faster honk. That’s totally unnecessary in New York. It just drives me totally crazy.

Petri: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Bailey: Loved to have been a sportscaster, for sure. I feel I would have had a ton of fun doing that. Live interviewing athletes or calling games. I would have loved to have done that. I love sports and I have a lot of fun being live and dynamic with people on a microphone. So I would’ve loved that.

Petri: Are you sure you don’t have a Twitch account?

Bailey: I should get one. That’s a good idea. That’s a genius idea. Excuse me. I need to go to it right now.

Petri: What profession would you not like to do?

Bailey: A lot of people in tech land love software engineers. They’re kind of the kings of the castle. The actual lived experience of sitting on my ass in front of a computer with a console open cranking Red Bulls and listening to techno music or whatever to stay in the flow state. I would hate that and will not be my thing.

Petri: If you could be a co-founder of any startup in any era, which one would you choose?

Bailey: That is a fun question. It’s hard to know that I’ve truly canvassed the options. One company that I really respect is This American Life, the radio show, which is really big in the United States. They make this deceptively simple, hour-long radio show that is so high quality.

And they only need 20 people to do it. And people who know it love it. They just like, just gush about it. And people who don’t know about it don’t know about it. And it’s a healthy, small business. That’s just extremely well respected. So I think something like that where it’s not too complicated to run.

You just do one thing and you do it really well and people really, really appreciate it.

Petri: Any final to the audience?

Bailey: The final words are the big thesis of that we got from all the communities that we met, who we were really impressed by, who were thriving and benevolent. Successful communities of all kinds, which is you build a community with people, not for them. With the Internet and the tools that we have today, it’s so much easier to communicate with, empower, find and connect other people who are passionate about something that you’re passionate about. But the orientation is different than what we’ve had for a long time, which is to build for others. And it’s really powerful to empower other people instead of just trying to do everything for them. Consider how you can be more progressively collaborative with other people in your life and empower people instead of control or manage and define the relationship with other people.

Petri: Thank you, Bailey. I think you’ve just solved the social dilemma.

Bailey: I hope so. Good Lord. That would be a hell of an accomplishment. You heard it here, people somewhere on my Wikipedia page where we’re going to say that I solved this when I need a Wikipedia page first.

Petri: Well, we can fix that,I guess with the audience. Everybody just contributes a bit. Do it with us!

But Bailey, we may need something from you as well. How about some Clubhouse invites?

Bailey: Oh, yeah, God, I need to earn them. It’s amazing. They only give them to you if you spend a lot of time in the app.

Petri: Can’t you just open the app?

Bailey: I could. That’s a great idea. There you go. Problem solved. I can do that.