A few years ago I gave a talk on the Facebook campus. Campus is the most important word in that sentence. Corporations don’t have offices anymore they have campuses. And that’s not an accident. The last time I was part of a campus I was in college. I have fond memories of that campus. I grew up there. I met my friends there. I ate there. I saw bands there. I fell in love there. I had my heart broken there. I worked there. I shopped at the campus store. I even managed to attend a few classes there. And for the first year of my college life, I lived there. For the length of my college stay that campus was the center of my community. And for people who attend college, this is the first community we experience outside the community we grew up in. It’s our first community as supposed adults, where we have a higher degree of agency.
“We’re hard wired for community. We’ve been living in communities forever in terms of needing the numbers to go hunt or to go collect berries.” says Dan Sinker. Dan has been building communities since he started Punk Planet, a magazine I probably read on that college campus, to his days running Open News, a community of news nerds. As Dan suggests, communities keep us safe. They protect us from elements outside the community, they allow us to share resources, and they provide us with an identity. Which is why so many people return to those college campuses throughout their lives hoping to rekindle that feeling of belonging.
Throughout our lives we continue looking for communities to belong to. For some of us it’s our neighborhood, or people that we share a common interest with. Such as all the neighbors at the dog park whose names I don’t know even as I can give you a full run-down of their dogs dietary restrictions. A community can be a group of people that we share a spiritual connection to, such as in a church, synagogue, mosque, or Butthole Surfers show. And sometimes community is thrust on us. People marching for a cause are a temporary community. We have a sense of belonging together. In all these cases, these are our people. We look out for each other, and we keep each other safe.
Losing a job doesn’t just mean losing a paycheck, it means being ostracized from your community.
As I walked through the Facebook campus, it reignited some of those same feelings from my college campus. There were shops, giant lawns, a climbing wall (my state school did not have a climbing wall), there were people doing things that looked more like hanging out than doing work. And people were wearing clothes with the name of the company on it, just like on college campuses. (Picture John Belushi in the infamous COLLEGE sweatshirt from Animal House, except it says COMPANY.) And just as I went to school to supposedly go to class, these people were here to supposedly do work. Yet the setting provided for so much more than that. It was obviously a community.
This is by design. Facebook, and companies like Facebook, want you to feel like you’re not just at work, they want to be your de facto community. They’ll provide you with everything you need. Not just a job, but also food, clothing, services to wash that clothing, social events, haircuts, they’ll bring in bands to play at events, gyms, health care, and even on-campus mental health services (which raises so many red flags to me that it’s beyond anything I can joke about). Modern tech campuses don’t just rival college campuses, they obliterate them in scope, activities, and money. Losing a job doesn’t just mean losing a paycheck, it means being ostracized from your community. And in at least Facebook’s case, losing access to your therapist! They’re company towns. (Watch Matewan, kids. Know your history!)
There are communities that emerge, often without leaders (Occupy comes to mind), and communities that are purposely designed to be communities, such as college campuses and these new tech company towns. When something is designed, we need to look at the motives of the designer. Tech campuses are designed to, first of all, lure you in. (Not much different than a college campus, to be honest.) You interview, you visit the campus, it plays a role in which job you choose. Secondly, they’re designed to keep you there. (And here we diverge from college campuses, which are happy to kick you out after four years to a groom a new crop of future alumni dues targets.) They cater to your needs and whims. They provide sustenance. They provide necessary services. Thirdly, and most insidiously, they’re designed to inspire loyalty. Especially when the community is under attack. They may appear to be designed for the benefit of the worker, but the feelings of loyalty the community is designed to engender benefit the company much, much more.
After the Facebook opposition research scandal broke last week I reached out to a few Facebook employees. (They’ll remain anonymous for obvious reasons.) And while their initial reactions went from from pretending this wasn’t happening, to being outraged and wanting to leave the company, within days they’d circled the wagons. Their mindset turned to something like “We’ll be fine. We’ll get through this.” They were rallying in support of what they saw as their community. And by the insidious design of that community, they ended up protecting the corporation that designed it.
There’s a dark side of communities as well. And that’s insulation. When the reason for community changes from ‘keeping those inside safe’ to ‘keeping those outside, out” we lose perspective, we stagnate, and we stop introducing new ideas. (Not to mention crippling the genetic pool.) We circle the wagons.
According to the Intelligencer’s Brian Feldman, Mark Zuckerberg gathered his staff together shortly after the Facebook opposition scandal broke and described the story as “bullshit.” (Narrator: It’s not. They ended up admitting it on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving.) Zuckerberg is responsible for at least two communities: The community of people who use his service, and the community that builds it. He betrayed the former a long time ago, and I can’t be absolutely certain of exactly when he betrayed the latter, but that particular moment is definitely on the short list of candidates.
Where most of the world saw a story about corporate malfeasance and corruption, Facebook employees were told a story about their community being under attack and needing to protect itself. They circled the wagons. If your community was under attack you’d circle the wagons too. And that’s the problem. Their sense of community, as designed by the corporation, was stronger than their sense of loyalty to any community outside the company. (And the benefits of being in that community so immense!) It became easier to rally against outside forces, than to question the community that provides them with nearly everything. Not to mention their own complicity by continuing to work there.
Many of those same Facebook employees will end their day by getting on luxury buses and riding up highway 101 to San Francisco, a city where they sleep, eat brunch, and drink. But many of them don’t view the city as their community. And that’s the problem. The tech bubble, which eviscerated the rental market and led to thousands of evictions within the city, didn’t just destroy multiple communities. It replaced them with non-communities. San Francisco, once a vibrant imperfect city with a million weird and wonderful communities, has become a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. A huge swath of people working here don’t see themselves as part of any community in the city. Their community is elsewhere. And it was designed by their boss.
If designers, and other tech workers, want to have any chance at fixing the mess we’ve created we need to reassess who we consider our community. The homeless people whose existence we condemn in our Medium think pieces because they dare to exist close to the homes we pay too much rent for? They are our community. And it would serve us all well to understand how we are failing them. The multitudes that get harassed and abused online by the very tools we build? They are our community. They deserve our allegiance. The corner bodega that’s barely getting by because all their customers have been evicted? They deserve our business. The school system that’s suffering because teachers can no longer afford to live where they teach? They deserve your tax money.
Now is it possible for real community to exist within the Disneyfied campuses created by corporations? I wouldn’t be asking the theoretical question if the answer was no. Obviously it can. Communities can emerge anywhere. They can emerge wherever people have common goals. Whether it’s getting everyone on our block to rake their leaves in the fall, cheering our local team, or marching for a cause. We see this in the Google walkout just a few weeks ago. Google has many beautiful campuses across the world, and I guarantee you they weren’t designed so that workers can organize. And yet they did. Those workers ended up creating a real community within the community the corporation designed for them.
People who would sack you in a heartbeat to improve their earnings report are not your community and they don’t deserve your allegiance.
The people who would sack you in a heartbeat to improve their quarterly earnings report are not your community and they don’t deserve your allegiance. (And, by the way, when they fire you so they don’t get yelled at during an investor call they’re showing you who their community is. It’s not you.) When companies design their workplaces to mimic the trappings of community (any many tech workers go directly from college campuses to corporate campuses, making the mental mapping that much easier) they’re taking all those good feelings that you have about community and transferring it to their own ends. They’re buying your loyalty with corporate haircuts, swordfish on Fridays, and a therapist within walking distance of your desk (that your manager can see you walking in and out of).
One of the reasons humans band together in larger communities is to protect each other from something larger than ourselves. Our power derives from our collective power. We can’t design things for the common good if the community we’re representing is our boss. When we look out at a team with twelve people in it, we need to know that team is representing the best interests of twelve different communities. We need to know that team is doing something those communities need. We need to know that team is making sure that tool isn’t going to have adverse effects on those communities. Will that slow us down? You bet. And that’s a feature, not a bug. We’ve seen where moving fast and breaking things has gotten us.
We need to get our shit together. Our real communities need us.