Watch the new Hulu documentary WeWork: Or the making and breaking of a $ 47 billion unicorn, and if you can keep your eyebrows from completely creeping off your face in the first 20 minutes, then my hat is off for you.
WeWork – the now troubled company that has signed long-term real estate leases in New York City and built fun co-working office spaces for millennials – is described in the film in terms bordering on the religious. It started as a & # 39; transparent and responsible & # 39; community, focused on & # 39; connection & # 39; and & # 39; changing the world & # 39 ;. Spending your days on a WeWork site was "somehow like being a member of a club, more than just where your office building is." Where recent graduates could go to a & # 39; goal & # 39; and a & # 39; dream & # 39; to find. It was "rightfully the craziest work experience." At WeWork and other related brands – WeLive, WeGrow – it was all about 'bringing people together' in the & # 39; spirit of us & # 39 ;.
All that language is creepy and nauseatingly familiar to so many millennials, who grew up believing bizarre ideals about work. I am often an & # 39; older millennial & # 39; Born in 1983, my age group and I are used to reciting the myth that the company that pays us money in exchange for our labor – if we're lucky enough to avoid the clutches of the gig economy – is " more like a family than a business. (It never is.) And we grew up in a cultural landscape, as Atlantic writer Derek Thompson puts it in the documentary, of 'techno-optimism', a world where 'you were rewarded as you could express a vision of your company. that would not only make money, but also change the world
Work is our goal, our guiding light, where we find our meaning, where we have fun – or at least that's what we had to believe. It's not about work-life balance; it's about mixing your life with work. We hear Dolly Parton sing “9 to 5” and sigh melancholy. (In a dystopian twist, Dolly recorded a version of the song called & # 39; 5 to 9 & # 39 ;, an ode to the & # 39; side hustle & # 39; for a Squarespace ad during the 2021 Super Bowl.)
And of course we earn money with work. Gobs of it, as long as we work hard enough. In the words of WeWork founder Adam Neumann, "We want to do something that really makes the world a better place, and we want to make money from it!" In the words of the WeWork slogan: Do what you loveThe well-known reply to that sentence reads: And love what you do.
It's just a 21st century utopian mantra, and it worked for WeWork and Neumann for a while. Small wonder. Dreams of utopianism are an American tradition – perhaps the American tradition, if we extend the label to those who immigrated to this continent in search of a better and more harmonious life, far from where life was worse. In the 19th century, hundreds of utopian communities were founded in the US., both religious (the Shakers) and secular (the transcendentalist Brook Farm). The 20th century carried on the tradition (think the hippies in Haight-Ashbury).
Over time, the shape has changed, but the basic principles remain the same. Groups are formed, often around a charismatic and idealistic leader. They isolate themselves from the outside to a certain extent. They adopt ideals that go against the flow of mainstream society and try to live in harmony with each other and to model a new way of life. Sometimes they succeed and thrive; more often they fold or implode, spreading spectacular fireworks. More than a few times they fall into offensive sects (hello, Wild Wild Country
It is fitting that some notorious 21st century utopian communities have organized themselves around secular ideas of self-improvement and success, especially in this "techno-optimistic" world. Streaming services have made a humble cottage industry of documenting the latest developments. A recent example is Keith Raniere and NXIVM in HBO's The promise, about an organization (read: a sect) committed to projecting prosperity and achievement. Or there is the double whammy of the Netflix and Hulu docs about Billy McFarland and the Fyre Festival catastrophe. That infamous failed event stemmed from McFarland's keen sense that young, ambitious New York professionals would follow a vision of success that began with cocktail parties in chic brownstones and ended with a lavish party on a Caribbean island. (Or cheese sandwiches in styrofoam takeaway containers, I suspect.)
It is the Fyre Festival audience that WeWork founder Neumann targeted most aggressively. (I'd like to see the Venn diagram overlap between the McFarland and Neumann Acolytes.) And it's Neumann who is the main draw of WeWork: Or the making and breaking of a $ 47 billion unicorn
Written and directed by Jed Rothstein, the film draws on familiar imagery – slow-motion shots of empty rooms, archival footage, brightly lit interviews – while, a little awkwardly, tries to capture Neumann's rise and fall as well as the company's time. to capture. examining the types of people who were drawn to his vision. They are all serious, beautiful, and about "elder millennial" in age – the kind of people who are willing to get their hands dirty and really make something of the world. They have applied to work for or at WeWork. They wanted to build businesses in front of other ambitious young people in the hope of making the world a better place. (There's a great supercut of young founders chanting their companies' portmanteau names in quick succession – monikers like Yoink, BrunchCritic.com, SmileBack, ScrollKit, Handshake, Scruff, and what sounded like Beer2Buzz.)
They also wanted to drink a lot. The documentary makes a big point of this. Former WeWork attorney Don Lewis, who is slightly older than most of those interviewed, talks about kegs of beer, unlimited alcohol, showing up at 4pm and continuing to flow until no one was there to drink it. The annual WeWork "summer camp" for adults (yes, you read that right) is mostly described as a place where the booze flowed freely and founder Adam Neumann delivered motivational speeches. Someone calls it "Fyre Festival went well".
(It is downright shocking, given the amount of documents drunk, that the film does not contain a single whisper of allegations of sexual assault. Especially as poignant and disturbing allegations have certainly been made in court; a colleague has reportedly told another that it did. so was. "Just a matter of time until someone gets raped" at a WeWork event.)
Some WeWork customers – er, community members – took it a step further and signed up to live in a “WeLive” neo-commune. Individual residents (virtually all, according to the film, were single) lived in 60-square-foot hotel-style rooms and shared kitchens, laundry rooms, and common areas. This setup itself is not uncommon in New York City, where rents are high and friends are hard to find if you're new to the city. But WeLive, as former resident August Urbish explains, became more of a walled utopian community than just a place to live. “It was strange when someone left the building,” he says.
Urbish later notes that after moving into space while also working from a WeWork office, his "entire life has been supported by the We community." Friends from & # 39; outside & # 39; came to visit him and did not return. "Pretty soon," he says, "I had alienated most of my friends outside the building." (Incidentally, or maybe not, being encouraged to isolate yourself from your friends and family is one thing well established warning sign that you joined a cult.)
On the one hand, this sounds a lot like college, when you get caught up in campus life and start to lose touch with the friends back home. On the other hand, these were adults, professionals, in their twenties and thirties. And as more time passed, it began to seem more and more that Neumann and his vision were not quite up to date, especially as his wife Rebekah (a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow and seemingly cut from the GOOP canvas) took a more active role. in the company.
In the film, former WeWork employees talk about the "propaganda" being fed to members while everything behind the scenes was chaos. On Monday morning, when new members were "onboarded", current employees occupying WeWork spaces heard deafening chants and booing and screaming all about the greatness of WeWork. "They were willing to spend any money to feel good and look good for their employees," said Joanna Strange, who was once the company's product manager.
Neumann cultivated an air of vaguely Muppety charisma that charmed not only people his own age but the fabulously wealthy investors who kept money and alcohol flowing freely. In terms of normal people, Neumann fleeced them, largely through a crazy statistic called & # 39; community-adapted Ebitda & # 39; to use to measure WeWork's success. (Ebitda stands for "earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization" and is widely used in the financial world; Neumann and his colleagues "adapted" the definition to differentiate include construction and community operating expenses. the numbers to hide WeWork's massive unprofitability.) He didn't run a real estate company, he insisted; it was much bigger than that. The company became a "unicorn" in Silicon Valley – a private $ 1 billion company – then a unicorn many times over, eventually reaching a value of $ 47 billion. Investors, attracted by other investors, just kept investing. Even the Saudi Arabian Government got into it.
Neumann flew high on his own stash, believing that if he talked enough and convinced people he knew what he was doing, everything would be fine. He thought he could control reality. And why wouldn't he? Thanks to an anecdote told by an interviewee in the film, we discover that the WeWork baristas had started serving lattes when people ordered cappuccinos, and vice versa, because Neumann ordered a latte but expected a cappuccino and no one wanted to correct him. "When you tell a man in his 30s that he is Jesus Christ, he tends to believe you," said Scott Galloway, a professor of business at NYU.
Meanwhile, people in the WeWork community discovered the dangers of questioning the & # 39; mind of us & # 39 ;. Justin Zhen, the founder of a startup called Thinknum Alternative Data that was housed in a WeWork space, tells of the day his company discovered through public records that the & # 39; churn rate & # 39; of WeWork – that is, the number of members leaving WeWork – had increased and accelerated. In addition, an internal social network, developed for use among WeWork community members and used by Neumann as a lure for investors, was hardly used. Zhen's company posted about it on their blog, and within hours a WeWork community manager appeared. According to Zhen, they told him he had "violated our membership clause" and had 30 minutes to pack up his business and leave the premises.
And then, just days before it was scheduled to go public, the mold was up. When the unprofitable foundation and Neumann's sleight of hand became apparent to investors, his financiers began to move into the hills and he was eventually expelled altogether. Among other developments, the S-1 Form that WeWork has filed with the SEC (which starts the IPO process) has mentioned this little tune on the first page; someone in the documentary describes it as writing someone who was high:
We dedicate this
to the energy of us –
bigger than any of us
but in each of us.
WeWork: Or the making and breaking of a $ 47 billion unicorn describes the company's many financial troubles, investment troubles, the numbers lurking behind the scenes, the parties, the spiritual advisers Rebekah brought in Neumann, the idiosyncrasies and far-reaching business ramifications of Neumann & # 39; s cunning. Then there's the manipulation Neumann used to convince his employees that they were lucky enough to work for him, that he didn't need them, that they had to fight to stay in the job, and be thankful for it.
But it's strangely not curious about the bigger cultural implications of WeWork's demise, or what the whole disaster actually means. It shares this disinterest with the recent HBO series on QAnon, The storm, which fails to really explore why otherwise smart and curious people get dragged into seemingly ridiculous plans. The only answer given is that Neumann presented a vision of coolness that resonated with millennials' desire to find both purpose and profit in their work. (And booze, too.) But it doesn't understand why so many people find that vision attractive and credible at all.
I am curious about this. I sometimes think that given how many times we've heard this kind of – well, let's face it, nonsense – from charismatic and young (and mostly male) dreamers, we'd be vaccinated by now. It's a sales pitch. They want something from you. Neumann was looking for young, ambitious, good-looking millennium startup founders to pay his company to rent space … um, excuse me, to join the community. (By renting space.) As Thompson of the Atlantic explains, "the original members were not so much" members "as a" resource "from which WeWork could gain a reputation."
Says a former assistant to Neumann, "I was looking for a target in my mid-twenties, and here's this person selling this dream, and I was an easy target for that." At the end of the movie, she is in tears and remembers what she lost when WeWork went down: "It could have come together in something beautiful."
But could it be? Would an "authentic" fellowship around a man like Neumann, who wanted a flock to worship him, be any good at all? Why do we keep falling for this?
If I sound annoyed, it's because I am. I don't blame anyone for desperately seeking a purpose in life or for trying to find community; that is the most lovable quality imaginable, a story as old as humanity itself. What frustrates me is that it keeps working, and brings the seekers down with it.
To me, Neumann's language sounds like a very specific variety of cool young & # 39; church planters & # 39; – mostly male pastors from mostly white and mostly conservative evangelical churches – that showed up in the late 90's and early 60's, right when I was. grow up and draw young people to their meetings with the promise that this was not your parents' church, that we are not like those others. (Neumann is Israeli and grew up in a kibbutz, but his rhetoric is dead.)
You knew it when you saw it. They had strobe lights and a coffee shop in the back, or maybe they were lounging on couches or meeting in a bar – so countercultural! The aspiring influencer pastor wore expensive jeans and a hipster haircut, and during Wednesday night Bible study, you could indulge in some craft beer (a bold move in a completely displaced church culture). When an interviewee in the documentary said there was excitement at WeWork about & # 39; rebelling against the office culture of the '80s and' 90s, & # 39; the hair went down my neck.
Everything was about transparency and accountability, about & # 39; authentic community & # 39; and & # 39; be real & # 39;, not like those baggy churches at home. Your friends were from the Church; your life revolved around it. And they were all young, handsome, well-dressed and smart, just like you. To borrow the words of Don Lewis, the former WeWork attorney, "People really liked the coolness of it, and that was kind of what was being sold."
Don't get me wrong: some church leaders I remember were sincere, and some churches helped people and developed into close-knit but hospitable groups that actually invested in serving the community around them. And in the '90s, it wasn't the first time a younger generation of clergy tried to reinvent their parents' Sunday gatherings – by no means.
But more than a few of my acquaintances and friends got burned by those places, realizing too late that the pastor was more interested in gathering admiring followers than leading. Sometimes that motivation was "only" expressed in narcissistic behavior; sometimes it played out in much worse ways. And their followers may have rebelled against their parents' culture, but their rebellion was superficial; if they are & # 39; authentic & # 39; and & # 39; real & # 39; dared to question the leader, they would be on the outside.
What some experience in religious communities, others in secular communities. WeWork and the entire "We Community" led to its demise by Neumann is just one of those cases. But there are big reasons why millennials are flocking to these new leaders and “authentic” communities, and scholars study That reasons. Until the last five-minute piece, the documentary does not attempt to deal with them in any meaningful way. I suspect that is because the filmmakers themselves do not know the reason.
At the end they give their best. Many of the interviews were ostensibly conducted during the pandemic, and the film's final moments focus on why & # 39; community & # 39; exists and how we lost it during this time. But it lacks real insight. There are many slow-motion footage of empty New York streets and interviewees wearing face masks. People talk about how much we & # 39; community & # 39; during such a long period of isolation, saying things like, "What are we when we don't have each other?"
But perhaps it would have been a better approach to the word & # 39; community & # 39; lightly interrogated, which is so present in the movie that it is practically a watermark, but is also so overused that it has no meaning. After all, "community" is also a big buzzword on Facebook and virtually every social networking platform. And all over Silicon Valley, and in sects like NXIVM, and in pop-up churches that meet in bars. Adam Neumann didn't invent it. Does it mean friends? Family? People you know a little bit? Drinking buddies? People you see every day? Could it be that guys like Neumann stick to the word because of its vagueness? Because of the manufacturability so that everyone can make it mean what they want? And if there is no room to dispute or question a supreme leader in your community, is it a community at all?
WeWork: Or the making and breaking of a $ 47 billion unicorn is well worth seeing, a cautionary tale for our time. I wish it had been more curious about the roots of the anger-inducing story it tells. As it stands now, it's just another stone in a growing pile of examples of 21st century techno-utopianism and the crafty tricks we fall for over and over again.
By the way: Adam Neumann is doing fine, although he and Rebekah refused to be interviewed for the documentary. WeWork was still growing in January 2020. In fact, the pandemic might have saved the company. As of a few days ago, it was still valued at $ 9 billion and went public. The Neumanns live, as the film tells us at the end, in one of several houses they own in the New York area; Adam was given a golden parachute when he left WeWork. In the great American utopian tradition, it is everyone who got screwed.
WeWork: Or the making and breaking of a $ 47 billion unicorn premiered at the virtual SXSW Film Festival in March and will begin streaming on Hulu on April 2.