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The Importance of Having a Tribe and a Third Place

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This year will mark three years since I got up and moved from Phoenix, Arizona to Oakland, California. It's been a long and exhausting set of years, some of the hardest that I have had, but it has been an experience that I wouldn't trade for the world. I have met amazing people, forged close relationships that will last the rest of my life, and had the privilege of working with some of the smartest people I have met on a project that has improved urban life around the world.

But I lost a lot coming out here. Not many people I know now know that I spent three months homeless in Oakland, occasionally living in a warehouse on 15th and Webster with no income and too much depression to fix that easily. Not many people know that my move out here and the stress involved in relocating caused my relationship with my best friend to go to shit so far that it took us two years to reconcile and is a process still continuing.

Most people do know that I am depressed though, that some days it is a very crippling situation for me. It has taken me years to start figuring out why this has happened to me, but I am coming to realize that a large portion of this is due to the fact that I lost my tribe when I left Arizona.

Neotribalism or modern tribalism is a sociological concept which postulates that human beings have evolved to live in tribal society, as opposed to mass society, and thus will naturally form social networks constituting new "tribes."


I used to believe that things like neotribalism were goofy things, that we as a society could and should be a single mass; this whole adventure has changed that about me. I used to decry the insularity of tribes that formed within the open source community, but over time I have realized that that was simply my dislike of insularity, not a natural factor of tribes in and of themselves. I don't believe that tribal membership is set in stone, that you "roll with" the same people for your entire social life; indeed, they are overlapping friend circles, a venn-diagram of peer groups that always ensure you are forging new experiences.

In Arizona, I had a tribe of sorts, HeatSync Labs a wonderful hackerspace in Mesa, a mere bus ride and light rail ride from my university dorms. This community became a second family, of sorts, and it was constantly changing due to the way to community was structured. People came, people left, but we were brought together by a shared vision of a cool place that people could safely make and build whatever the hell they wanted to, so long as they did not harm another member. The physical space exists in a storefront on Main Street, in downtown Mesa, where hundreds of people a week walk past and can wander in, ask what the hell is going on, and maybe stay and learn to solder or program. It is hardly a perfect community and since I've left the space seems to have closed in around itself, which is a terrible shame, but few communities are as close and familial as the community I had in Arizona.

HeatSync functioned as a third place perfectly, and gave me a sense of community that kept me meeting new people and forging new experiences. It wasn't even about getting there, necessarily, the online space functioned alongside of the physical space to provide a sense of community even when I was not physically there.

I lost that community and space when I moved out here. The hackerspaces in San Francisco are nice, but due to the tech-centric nature of San Francisco and the bay area as a whole, there is less of a need for a general purpose hackerspace community, and as a result much of the bay area hackerspace scene seems politically motivated, as a system almost to rebel against the technology industry. I am not interested in that, terribly. I want to improve my community but I don't think that anti-capitalist tendencies are the way to go about that. Of course, the tech scene can be just as myopic at times, and so I have struggled to find a group that feels like community to me, a group that wouldn't stop talking to me if I quit my job next week.

And it has been fucking hard to find that. When I was first starting to make plans to come out here, my friend Brian Shaler spent a long time trying to get me to stay. One thing he told me resonates strongly with how I have come to view the bay area hacker community:

The Arizona meetup scene is about people who build cool things in their spare time and get together to show it all off to each other. The San Francisco meetup scene is about pitching your startup idea and hoping the person you are explaining it to is your next investor or cofounder.

I shrugged it off at the time, but as I went to more and more meetups out here I start to take it as fact, and have given myself a rule about attending tech meetups out here: if it is sponsored by or hosted at a startup, I won't go. As you can imagine, this has vastly narrowed the set of meetups I am able to go to, since there is not really a good general use event space for informal meetups to take place at.

I used to go to Oakland JS which is a great meetup full of wonderful people, but the location leads to little more than drinking, which is another thing that I have struggled with since coming out here, everyone in my social circles drink all the god damn time, it seems like. And so I stopped doing that and started, until I became too depressed recently to keep it rolling, hosting Emacs SF meetups as a way to bring together a bunch of like-minded folks around a thing as goofy as our choice of writing environment. This has been a great experience but has sort of failed to reach a critical mass so far and it is sort of shelved until I can figure out what to do with it. The most promising group I have found to align myself with over the last few months has been the IndieWebCamp movement. Unsiloing and owning your own data and destiny are things I care deeply about, and this group has been open and friendly, and even have a local meetup,the Homebrew Website Club, where we just talk about IndieWeb happenings, and work on our websites. It's fucking dope. All in all, though, I need more positive communities like this in my life. I have thought about starting up a meetup similar to the HWC for the local Matrix.org community, but shepherding another local community right now is not something that I can think of handling.

If there is one thing that I have learned as key to surviving in this crazy fucking place, its to make sure you have friends and a sense of place that isn't work. Work can change in a day, and it is important to make sure that if it does, you don't lose your line of contact with the real-world. It has taken me a long time to figure this out and come to terms with it.

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Ryan Rix is a privacy rights advocate and net-art wannabe. Reach them on the Fediverse as @rrix@cybre.space, twitter as @rrrrrrrix, via email to ryan@whatthefuck.computer or on Facebook or on Matrix as @rrix:whatthefuck.computer.