I've become so acclimated to San Francisco that the fluidity of New York's social scene surprised me. The Bay Area felt downright tribal in comparison. I suppose this is what happens when you have multiple industries vying for dominance in New York, whereas San Francisco seems to be organized around one industry’s gravitational pull (colloquially, “Tech”).
But the dominance of one industry alone isn’t what makes the Bay Area feel tribal. I believe it’s because the one industry (tech) is dominated by a couple behemoth incumbents (“Big Tech”), and the effects of that consolidation are pretty keenly felt in my peer group.
Consider the two questions “What do you do?” and “Where do you work?”
Asking people what they do for a living seems to be a fairly standard question in every city I have known, and a fairly innocuous question at that. But I have never been asked “Where do you work?” with the frequency that I have in the Bay Area. I’ve found that the answers to that question basically serve the same purpose as “Where did you go to college?” Consider, even, that some people will respond with the perfunctory “Oh, I work down in Mountain View” (Google) or “Cupertino” (Apple) or “Menlo Park” (Facebook/Meta) with as much resonance as “I went to college up in Cambridge” (Harvard).
In the tech sphere, the answers to the question “Where do you work?” have meaning in a way that they don’t in other places. Much like how undergraduate alma maters are often identity markers, places of employment serve as one as well here. As a result, I believe that your place of employment is at once a status symbol, an indicator of whether you are part of the in-group, and a way to establish some kind of a connection. I’ve seen very few times in which the question was asked without the goal of establishing one of the three.
Say what you will, but there is definitely an informal hierarchy among companies in the tech industry. This hierarchy is even more imperfect than any attempt to rank US colleges, but it persists nonetheless. I believe the hierarchy is determined by interesting technologies (it definitely seemed like the best talent was heading for the autonomous driving start-ups for a time), compensation & benefits (which are more transparent than ever thanks to Blind and Levels.fyi), and the general difficulty of “getting in.”
Start-ups, especially the early stage ones, are at once within this hierarchy and without - these are almost like liberal arts colleges in the sense that how they are ranked is highly variable given the disposition of the person being asked.
The people who would probably lend the most legitimacy to this status symbol are the ones who benefit from it - they are part of the in-group. But much like how elite colleges benefit from this self-selecting in-group phenomenon among its adherents, so do the tech companies. I think this is sad but it is an only natural facet of human relationships.
Big Tech is too large and small start-ups are too small for the “Where do you work?” question to be asked for the purpose of establishing whether the stranger you just met has mutual friends with you. This may have made more sense when asking where someone went to college, but not so with companies. I do believe, however, that there is an undeniable correlation between lifestyle and place of employment in the Bay Area. If they work in a similar role at a similar company as you, it is likely that they 1) make a similar amount of money, 2) work a similar number of hours, and 3) have a similar amount of disposable income and time for social activities.
This social arrangement in the Bay Area works in favor of these corporations, but it is precisely for these reasons that it is detrimental to its employees. It creates a lack of disassociation between work and life that is already exacerbated by just how blurred these lines already are (see Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley). If your identity is not just “what do you do” but “for whom do you do it for,” there is something that is very insidious about this arrangement.
It may be in the best interests of these corporations for you to exist in a bubble of their making - taking company shuttles to and from work, enjoying every amenity within its confines, and utilizing your coworkers as the medium of social life (random aside: after dating apps, it seems like the second most common source of romantic relationships among my friends is through the introduction of a coworker). But if you are able to abstract away the rest of the members of a society - the doctors, teachers, service workers, bankers, artists, etc. - it’s hard to shake the feeling that you are living in a simulation.
For now, I’ve decided to “opt into” continue living in San Francisco, even with its social confines. I am able to focus in solitude in San Francisco in ways that I cannot in New York, and I see some of this abstraction as a necessary evil as a result. But there are ways in which my own development is being stunted by virtue of existing within a simulation, and I’m curious about whether I’ll notice when I’ve gone too far.
(1) I suppose it is time for the necessary disclaimers. For one, I may be totally speaking out of my ass here. For another reason, I am an Asian college-educated male in my mid-twenties, and so I fit neatly within the profile of a demographic that is routinely recruited into the rank and file of these large tech companies. Lastly, for a variety of reasons, whenever I meet people that are recent immigrants from Korea, I try to socially prioritize them whenever possible. I actively want to hang out with people in this camp. But the American immigration system prioritizes degree holders in STEM fields, and these are people that often require visa sponsorship, which is why my peer group is heavily biased towards engineers that work at large tech companies.