The always-on, perpetual freelance culture of Web 2.0 has spawned its own “coworking” spaces, but are these new techno-optimists building sustainable communities?
When the Founding Fathers ratified life, liberty and happiness, they might not have quite envisioned Independents Hall. Low-pitched techno music echoes from the high ceilings of a loft-like office on Philadelphia’s Strawberry Street. A smattering of 20-something guys (and occasionally women) sit intent at laptops resting on black-and-silver Ikea tables, occasionally stopping for a smoke, or to share info about software or gear. Under a side table, a box of Transformers action figures awaits a fidgety moment. Upstairs, sofas and a shower anticipate a late-night crash.
Just blocks away from its famous namesake, Independents Hall is one of more than a dozen new “coworking” spaces that have popped up around the country in recent months. For $25 a day (or $175 a month for a three day a week commitment), you can drop into the space, use the wireless, meet with clients in the small glassed-in conference room, and, often, find folks to grab a drink with afterward. The feel is part dorm lounge, part ad agency and part cybercafe, and it’s a hit. In its first month, the space has already had visitors from around the country; its opening bash drew more than 200 partygoers.
Commercial “desk share” spaces have been around for awhile, providing a professional setting for independent contractors to meet clients and get things done. But coworking is a different animal, one that draws inspiration from open source software precepts and the lessons of the dot-com boom and bust. For atomized freelancers sick of Starbucks and longing for human interaction, coworking offers plug-and-play collegiality.
Alex Hillman, 23, is the most gregarious of Indy Hall’s founding fathers. A Web developer and Drexel student, he wears his heart on his wrists: a tattoo written in XML code on one translates to “start the love;” on the other, “end the hate.” This seems like a fitting sentiment for a new wave of techno-utopians who delight in making connections, fostering collaboration, and sharing knowledge. Coworking, Hillman says, is all about “bringing the social back into the workplace.”
Hillman worked with a set of other local independent workers to launch the space, including Bart Mroz, a Web project manager, and Geoff DiMasi, owner of interactive design agency P’unk Avenue. DiMasi also helps run a regular gathering of designers, journalists, architects and online developers called Junto, inspired by a club for mutual improvement that Benjamin Franklin established to explore questions of “Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy.”
Pulling Indy Hall together, says Mroz, reminded him of working on a startup. “I love the energy and craziness that a startup has, especially at the beginning,” he says. “My favorite phase is the 0-to-60 where you’re trying to get the idea out to as many people as possible, and at the same time trying to get funding and get everything off the ground.” At 28, Mroz has already worked for five startups and has consulted on a few others. He caught the tail end of the first Web boom, and has higher hopes for this one.
Co-working goes hand-in-hand with the volatile startup lifestyle, offering a haven between gigs and a spot to generate new projects and connections. The trend started in the capital of what business writer Daniel Pink has dubbed the “free agent nation”—San Francisco. There, Chris Messina, 26, and Tara Hunt, 34, run Citizen Agency, a marketing and design firm that advises clients on how to develop brand communities, and Citizen Space, a coworking office.
Their work is informed by their political sympathies. Messina is a veteran of CivicSpace—a Web development company for nonprofits that emerged from Howard Dean’s tech team. Hunt espouses “pinko marketing,” a loose-limbed philosophy that dismisses top-down selling strategies and asserts the primacy of the masses and the power of the amateur. The duo opened Citizen Space last November, and have been evangelizing the concept through their coworking wiki. Wikis are editable Web pages that allow for easy collaboration and updating by multiple users.
While coworking has its antecedents in writers groups and co-ops, the current incarnation evolved from the pair’s experiences with BarCamps—another rising trend that Messina helped to launch. BarCamps are user-generated conferences, organized around a shared interest, using guidelines and tools from the BarCamp wiki.
BarCamps are meant to serve as an alternative to expensive, closed professional conferences and technical training. The movement just celebrated its one-year anniversary, and has spread worldwide. In October alone there are BarCamps planned for Milwaukee and Mumbai, Palo Alto and Paris, Seattle and Switzerland, with session topics ranging from the economics of gift cards, to the technicalities of digital image processing, to eTourism.
“We like to say that coworking is BarCamp everyday,” says Hunt.
Just as open source software developers provide access to their code with the idea that outside volunteers will help them improve it, Messina and Hunt imagined that crafting an operating code for shared work spaces might encourage others to enlarge on the concept. They were right.
“I was jealous of what was going on in San Francisco,” confesses Hillman. “I wanted that energy. But then I realized it was replicable here.” Through informal get-togethers, called “cream cheese sessions” (a play on the biweekly Jelly! coworking sessions that Amit Gupta of Photojojo.com hosts in his New York apartment), Hillman started to meet likeminded Philadelphia freelancers like Mroz and DiMasi. Knitting together Philadelphia’s segmented tech and creative communities has become one of the central goals for Indy Hall.
“Community” is also central to everything that Citizen Agency does; it’s one of the “4 pillars of coworking” that Hunt recently posted to the movement’s Google Group (others include collaboration, openness and sustainability). Hunt and Messina scoff at “fly-by-night” commercial coworking spaces, which announce their new ventures on the wiki, but don’t stick around to converse and build trust. “There’s no buy-in, there’s no passion, and no community cohesion,” says Messina. “Buzz doesn’t come from building buzz; it comes from building relationships,” agrees Hunt.
And yet, Citizen Agency makes its living advising companies like hipster bag designer Timbuk2 about ways to develop seemingly impersonal brand communities. How does this all add up?
The term “community” is heavy with decades of baggage. It has spawned a cottage industry for pop sociologists and marketing gurus who tell us that Americans are “bowling alone,” lacking a “village” to raise their kids in, having traded in convivial “front porch” relationships for chilly water-cooler exchanges. “Community” sites like MySpace, del.icio.us, Flickr, YouTube and a host of others have placed social networking at the center of their business plans. Sites like LinkedIn, which connects more than 14 million professionals in 150 industries, can greatly hasten the formation of what sociologist Mark Granovetter termed “weak ties”—peripheral social relationships that can bolster an individual’s prospects and wellbeing. And the payoffs can be big: Google paid $1.65 billion in stock for YouTube in early 2006, and myriad smaller sites are jockeying for investment dollars from venture capitalists and buyouts from larger companies.
With all this money flying around, critics ask, how authentic can this new wave of communities really be? After all, many see capitalism and community as diametrically opposed. The commodification of practically everything leads to a weakening of “community values.” Relentless commerce is the solvent that loosens the ties that bind us.
But for Hunt and others, these new ties are just as valid as the old connections of blood, proximity and race. For better or worse, unlike earlier generations of activists, they attach no stigma to making a living while making new allies.
The online tools they advocate are easy to use, low-cost or free, and simple to replicate. Early adopters of both open source ideals and social networking tools have pioneered new expectations about the ease with which strangers can interact in shared contexts, form relationships, and lend a hand. As Hunt explained in a recent blog post, it’s all about finding ways to “connect on deeper, more positive levels.”
At times, this rings a bit like a flower-power retread. Of course, old-fashioned community isn’t that easy to come by; no number of Facebook friendships will serve as a safety net if you go bankrupt. And there’s always the “digital divide” to worry about; what good are new technologies to people who can’t afford computers? But still, these new techno-optimists are onto something, a tangible shift in the way many Americans interact. Relationships formed online are more frequently translating into face-to-face interactions, and vice versa. Coworking is a prime example of this change; it’s social networking in meatspace.
Dave Speers, 25, a community marketing consultant who works out of Independents Hall three days a week, likens the vibe to “Marxism—everyone helps one another.” And what are they helping one another do? Incubate their startups so that they can cash in and move on to other projects. Speers says that independent workers are drawn to spaces like Indy Hall exactly because they are too creative for corporate environments. “It’s a great landing pad,” he says. “It’s not forever.”
It’s an interesting idea: temporary Marxism for a temp economy. No worker’s paradise; just some cool folks to hang out with, a place to get stuff done, a chance at autonomy. Utopianism isn’t quite what it used to be.