Digital tribes will evolve into physical communes

June 4, 2021
future cities

“Did I hear you right, Zoom must have cut out. Baja Mexico?” 

“Yeah, Baja.” 

I was sitting in front of my computer watching Annie and trying to wrap my head around the idea my friend was explaining. She wants to move to Mexico with her family, buy land, and build a commune. What is she talking about? This isn’t the first time she’s talked about things like this.  She is kinda obsessed with our internet community, but she sounds serious this time.  

“And you want to build a commune?” I asked.

“Yes, but not one of those culty ones where you walk around naked and drink Kool-Aide, just living with friends in a great spot.
And that’s not all, Daniel, we want you and your family to come with us!” 

“Whoa, move to Mexico?”

“Listen, we’re not the first ones to do this”, Annie explained. 

“I mean the pandemic changed everything. Remote is the norm now, Daniel. We all left San Francisco to be closer to family for help with the kids, but common.. I don’t want to live in the suburbs of Cleveland any more than you want to live in suburban San Diego.” 

“San Diego is way better than Cleveland!” I retorted.

“Sure man, but is it better than the warm ocean in Baja… with friends?” she calmly rebutted. 

“Who else have you talked to?” I asked. 

“Steph and John, they’re in. Another couple you don’t know, but they’re in the creator’s tribe with us. I’m talking to you guys now. And, huh, my mom.” 

“Your mom?” 

“Yeah, I mean it’s not like she’s going to live in our house, just on the commune. She’d be a massive help in just running the property and helping out with kids. Steph’s mom and dad are considering joining us too.”

Damn, she’s really planning this I thought.  

“What about work?” 

“What about it? We just keep doing what we’re doing, freelancing with clients in the US, but we live in Mexico. Same time zone, just cheaper, and we can have our own little community!”

Maybe this isn’t so crazy I thought.

“I’ll talk to my wife”


Digital tribes, remote work, and happiness

Since the beginning of the internet, similar people have been finding each other, creating online communities - tribes. A few other trends, all accelerated by the pandemic, will give rise to digital tribes coalescing in physical tribes.

We'll start with the digital tribes themselves. At this point the power of the internet to bring people together is undeniable. In fact, the number one way people now meet their spouse is through dating apps (source).

We know these tribes exist -- I'm part of a few -- but what's interesting is that many tribe members are deepening their bonds. The pandemic, by cutting off real life connection, forced us online. Many of us deepened bonds with digital tribes members, or joined their first tribe. 

This brings us to the second factor, also pandemic influenced, remote work. Millions of knowledge workers around the world have spent the last year working from home, and in recent studies they have declared they don’t want to go back. In one recent survey only 2% of respondents said they absolutely want to go back, ⅓ said they’d prefer a hybrid model, while 65% said they prefer to work from home (source).

We’re in a new era. Remote is here to stay, and that will have new consequences. During the pandemic many people moved to be closer to family, like Annie above, but as the pandemic comes to a close there will be another reshuffling. People will assess their priorities and decide on where they want to live and near who. They can work with any company and live in any city. You already see some chatter of this online if you’re looking.

This leads to the next point: people will end up living near their fellow tribe members. To understand that, we need to examine social living structures. 

For the vast majority of human history we lived in small tribes. The tribe is our natural, evolved formation. Look at our nearest relatives, the apes, and you'll see they live in small tribes. The small tribe is the natural social living structure for our branch of the evolutionary tree. Only in the last 10 thousand years, with the advent of agriculture, have large cities with millions of people living near each other become possible. Even then, not everyone lives in cities. Furthermore, it's hard to posit that living cities increases reproduction to the point that we're selecting for it and evolving an advantage by living in cities. It’s something that we just do.

Are we happy living this way though? A nuclear family in a suburban home among millions of other families? 

In most cases no. So what about our tribal ancestors? Were they happier? If you ask people that would know, like Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, he’d say tribal people were happier (source). 

Now, we’re not happy these days for a ton of reasons including stress and lack of sleep. There is a deeper issue though.

We’re lonely. In a report from right before the pandemic, 3 out of 5 Americans reported being lonely with an increase over the previous study. You can imagine how the pandemic shifted those numbers.

We’re lonely, and we’re getting lonelier. 

It’s not hard to understand why. Modern life limits your number of deep relationships. You have your spouse, kids, a few friends. How often do you hang out with your friends? Even before the pandemic? How about your uncle? We didn’t evolve this way. We evolved in small, close-knit tribes and a web of deep connections.

Enter communal living. It’s not a new concept, not even a new-old concept. In Nordic countries they’ve been doing it for a while and even here in the US, but it has been a fringe movement. Nordic communal living  It's about to go more mainstream.

Let’s take all these points and bring them together.
One, we’re already seeing a rise in internet tribes that are growing stronger bonds among members.
Two, many tribes members are now able to work remotely from anywhere.
Three, some subset of those tribe members will move to be closer to other tribe members.  These are the founders of the first communes. They understand the ideas of digital nomadism and the concept of a commune. They’re craving that web of deep connections. 

They will be the pioneering commune builders.  They’ll crowdfund the capital and build a space for the initial members with room to grow and room for visitors. They’ll still be part of the larger online tribe. 

This seems like a large leap, but all it takes is for a handful of tribes to build communes and then others will join, or start their own. 

There are many other trends that will contribute, most deserve their own post:

  • Rise of gig work 
  • Rise of creator class
  • Rise of digital nomadism
  • New generation and their ideals: Millennials, Gen Z
  • ~Less fixated on money
  • ~More fixated on experiences
  • ~More interest in natural, ancestral ways
  • ~More open to socialism
  • ~Internet savvy

Some theoretical trends that could massively accelerate this:

So what does this mean? 

The people that start these communes are likely going to be fairly well-to-do, technically savvy, and freelancers. Given that many of the initial commune members are likely to come from the technology industry we’ll see a lot of startups built around the space.

If you’re a business person or investor, keep an eye out for opportunities in this space in the coming years. Co-living is here and investment dollars are pouring in. Check out a few companies already in the space in the US, Common, Ollie, and Coliving.

If you’re a municipality it will make a lot of sense to attract these high earners to build on the fringe of your city. In fact we’re already seeing small cities vie for remote workers by offering up to 20k to relocate there

I’m certain we’ll see digital tribes establishing physical communes in the near future. Maybe I’ll start one. Maybe you'll join!

Top image credit:
Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

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