In the very first episode of “Friends,” Rachel flees her wedding to find her high school friend. Monica invites Rachel to move into her spare bedroom and helps her get a job. Her brother Ross and their friends help her cut up her credit cards and learn to live independently. 

I was in fourth grade when that television show debuted and in college by the time it ended. By then, these characters were ingrained in one another’s lives, and mine. Rachel stumbled into a community of friends, like Phoebe who teaches her how to run more freely, Ross and Joey who became “nap partners,” and Monica who puts a turkey on her head to cheer up Chandler. 

This tight-knit group lived in the same apartment building or very close to it, they were in and out of one another’s homes and lives. They may have been fictional, but they idealized friendship for a generation. 

A generation that might be our most socially isolated yet.

Desiring a return to this kind of close-knit community, the modern tech set have come up with a very technocratic solution: Create groups of likeminded friends online, then build villages for them in-person. A world of so-called “Network States.” Cabin has created a network of them, Nico Shi has visited and made a map of them, and Supernuclear has documented the co-living movement, where individuals pool together to buy or rent a house together.

But these groups aren’t creating communities of “Friends,” they are creating communes—“intentional communities” where “likeminded” people can co-live with one another. Many of these communities are agrarian or “off-grid.” They often describe themselves using pseudo-spiritual language and feature high levels of self-governance with chores divided between participants and decisions made by vote.

These organizations often position themselves as the future of communities, but they look a lot more like the past, a sort of romanticized feudalism. Shi thinks this is a course correction from the stressors of modern life. “I wonder if choosing off-grid living implies an abandonment of our current world, instead of integrating with existing systems and trying to make them better,” she asks me. “The off-grid lifestyle seems to invite people to actively leave society with the assumption that since this is not working, there must be a better way out there.”

There isn’t. Houses were invented for excellent reasons, indoor plumbing drastically improved public health, heating and air conditioning made life less dangerous, refrigeration made food safe to eat, electricity led to advances in education and wealth generation, and agricultural advancements made it so that we didn’t have to work back-breaking labor in the fields, increasing our life expectancy. It’s probably the fallacy of modern living that we need to go without it every now and then to appreciate it, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with choosing that life if we want it, but retreating from society altogether isn’t the ideal, nor is it realistic. 

“There's this meme that everybody and their friends want to fuck off and buy 100 acres with their 10 best friends and build houses and do regenerative farming—the whole thing,” Cam Lindsay, a community steward in the Bay Area, tells me. “But like, you're a tech bro at fucking Google, what do you mean?”

Rather than retreat from modern life, Lindsay advocates for engaging with it where we are. That’s why he is part of Cohort Zero, a new initiative from Cabin.

“Some people really enjoy living out deep in nature and cultivating community there, so we've put some effort into supporting that shape,” Savannah Kruger, community lead at Cabin tells me. “Now we're like, okay, there's also a really large group of people who want to live in cities and have rich community and be able to co-create things and build things with the people that they gather with.”

She points to Fractal NYC as a good example of this shift. “They wanted to bring as many of their friends to come live in their apartment building with them and basically have the TV show ‘Friends,’” Kruger says. “So they did that—in two years, they got about 30 people to move into their building or live within a five-minute walking radius of them.”

That “Friends” ideal was exactly what Priya Rose and her husband were going for when they created Fractal. Their website is clear: “Communes are cool, but we’re not all that: we’re ‘just’ a friend network that shares spaces, manages projects, and raises each other’s aspirations.”

Rose and her husband Andrew were very over the co-living thing by the time they created Fractal. They tried it in San Francisco where they shared a five-bedroom house with five to seven people. It was the whole thing: “There were assigned chores, and we would have house cleanings and house meetings. We were trying to act as this democracy where we would vote on things together,” Rose tells me. 

It didn’t work. Once the pandemic hit, everyone wanted different things. “The democracy fell apart really quickly because me and my husband and our friend were on the lease, we were financially liable. All of the roommates were leaving San Francisco because the city was shut down and people were losing their jobs. Then other roommates were being really picky about who they wanted to live with, but they didn't have any financial incentive on the line to be flexible.

“Andrew and I were like ‘We will never do democracy again—we don't believe in it.’ We believe in a ‘many sovereigns’ kind of thing. Basically, it's just this idea of living near your friends.”

When they moved to New York, they didn’t want to get into another co-living situation, but they still wanted to live near friends so they invited them to rent in the same building. This time they had something more like the “Friends” ideal: Close community, but everyone could govern their own lives as they saw fit. “It takes away all of the overhead and all the negotiating of a commune while giving you all the good stuff, which is that you live near 40 friends, you have a shared social space,” Rose says.

When my husband and I moved to Salt Lake City, we had something similar. We intentionally rented an apartment with a community pool and rooftop patio where we quickly met some of our best friends. We spent summers grilling on the rooftop, inviting everyone to bring their own food as some played guitar around the firepit. We knocked on each other’s doors to invite friends over when we made extra food. We held pool parties on the weekends and met in the lobby to go on bike rides together.

We weren’t “likeminded” apart from being among the age group that rents apartments, but it’s worth asking: Do we need to be surrounded by “likeminded” individuals? Or are “nearby” individuals enough? 

Or maybe, as I suspect, are they even better?

The group on “Friends” certainly weren’t likeminded. Each of the characters were drastically different—there’s the artist, the eccentric masseuse, the actor. This is not a group of Ross’s paleontology friends or Rachel’s fashion friends. Phoebe isn’t palling around with a community of turquoise-wearing eccentrics. They are friends of proximity: a brother or sister, a high school friend, a college roommate. 

And maybe un-likeminded friends are the better thing to cultivate. If Ross only hung around with academics, might that group have become elitist and insular? If Phoebe had gone to Burning Man every year with her beatnik friends, might her eccentricities have been sharpened to a point, no longer the kind of person who would hang out with a more materialistic Rachel or a corporate Chandler? 

Lindsay thinks it’s a detriment that we are splitting off into “likeminded” communities when we should be engaging with one another. “Civic participation, discord, and discourse inside of a country is entirely based on how well people know their neighbors and how deeply people are involved in their local organizations.,” he says. “As a culture, we have heavily amplified this narrative of hyper-individualism.”

He’s right. In a 2020 update to his famed book Bowling Alone, Robert D Putnam documents our decline in civic and organizational involvement since 1950. Since then social trust has deteriorated, close personal ties with others have declined, and “the average size of Americans’ core discussion networks contracted by about one-third after 1985.” People have much smaller networks outside of their families than they used to, and even smaller networks within their families.

We went from getting married at 20, having kids at 25, going to church on Sundays, celebrating Independence Day in the cul-de-sac, baking pie for new neighbors, and joining neighborhood rotary clubs and bowling leagues to something much more fragmented. We moved away from the suburbs, we stopped attending church and joining local organizations, we took different jobs in different cities and had kids at different times. Families contracted into themselves, spending time with one another rather than as part of a larger group. 

The advent of the internet only continued the divide we were already creating, reinforcing the things we liked and de-emphasizing things we didn’t. While Putnam sees a lot of benefits to social media, the detriments became social and political polarization. Our algorithms separated us into “likeminded” groups—kicking people off Facebook and Twitter only sent them to Truth Social, further alienating us from understanding one another. When we secede to our separate groups, we sharpen those qualities and become antagonistic of those who are not.

We separate ourselves into “us” and “them.”

But the world we are creating online should not be replicated offline. Building a world of Network States, grouped according to interest, would only recreate the tribalism we have worked so hard to overcome. “In the last 100 years, our world has gone through transformative progress on human rights,” Shi says. “The result of these events created rules and regulations for businesses, property owners, and government officials to make sure they operate within the bounds of reason.

“Once you opt-out from the ‘default world’ and join any form of alternative living, you also opt-out from the guardrails of equality that is provided by the ‘default world.’ Events like this happen all the time, from cult-alike communes like Wild Wild Country to commonly apparent emerging abusive leadership structures in Utopian communities. Opting out from the guardrails naturally provides opportunities for failing.”

Societal segregation is the problem, not the solution. 

“It’s the dance of inclusivity/exclusivity,” Kruger says. “We're trying to build a microcosm of the larger world, but if we box people out at this scale, it is just going to continue at higher and higher scales.”

Rather than build new communities for the likeminded, we should engage our existing ones. As Kruger says: “You can either bring the friends that you already have into your neighborhood, or you can make friends in your neighborhood, and they're already there.”

And maybe that second option is vital, not to mention the way we’ve been doing things for eternity. 

When Kruger decided to cultivate community in her apartment complex in Boulder, Colorado, she met several likeminded people, but several weren’t. That’s kind of the point. “There are some people in my building that I absolutely adore and I want in my life for the rest of my life,” she says. “There are also people in my building that I'm kind of like, you're lovely. I'm glad you exist. I don't want to spend every waking hour with you.”

That was true on “Friends” too. Mr. Heckles was the downstairs neighbor who always pounded on the ceiling with his broom when they were too noisy and showed up at their door in a robe to reprimand them, but he was so much a part of their life that the friends mourn him when he passes. From the window in their apartment, Monica and Rachel can see “Ugly Naked Guy,” the source for so many of their jokes, but also an elaborate attempt to poke him with taped-together chopsticks when they are worried he has died. Even the landlord plays a role in the gang’s antics—Joey teaches him how to dance for a date. 

Ancillary characters play a big role in our lives. When we moved from our apartment to a neighborhood, we met many of them. There’s the family with matching bowl cuts who run together in jeans every night after dinner. There is the guy who walks his dog and tells us inappropriate jokes as we eat dinner on our porch. There is the guy chain-smoking cigarettes while his dogs bark at every passing car. There is the mysterious house where no one ever comes in and no one ever comes out. 

I would be sad to miss out on all of these people because I lived in a “likeminded community.” 

And I think we would become less tolerant of the un-likeminded if we did. 

Wouldn’t it be better if we lived next door to the people we disagreed with? And were able to be friends with them? In my neighborhood, many people have very different ideas about the world than I do, and yet we still get along. We are friends. It softens our edges and allows us to be more understanding of those with differing opinions. 

To get there, Rose says we should return to “neighborhoods.” Supernuclear’s Phil Levin advocates for “mini-hoods.” These aren’t new concepts, they are entirely old ones. In fact, they are what we had in the 1950s when America was at its social peak. “The story of social capital in America during the past 125 years turns out to look like an inverted U-Curve,” Putnam says. “Starting the century at nearly the same low we experience today, growing until roughly the mid-1960s, then declining again.”

Maybe then, we shouldn’t be trying to create network states of likeminded people, but rather recreating the 1950s cul-de-sac where we got to know the people around us. 

“It is not either/or it is yes/and,” Lindsay says. “It’s: Make friends with the neighbors and let's have a couple of best homies over here… That makes all of the difference.”

It takes cultivation, and a lot of the recommendations Rose, Kruger, and Lindsay give me feel like common sense: Host a weekly dinner party or monthly game night and invite everyone in your building or neighborhood to join. Start a text message thread or WhatsApp group for everyone on your street. When one of Rose’s friends moved into a Brooklyn skyscraper, she did just that, inviting everyone she met in the elevator or mailroom to join her WhatsApp chat. “Now there are 400 people or something and she has a number of best friends who live in the building who she met because she had this Whatsapp group where people organize yoga and book clubs and all sorts of stuff,” Rose says.

When we moved to our new street, we hosted a block party that first year. We went door-to-door asking every neighbor if they wanted to attend, and they did. Mormon neighbors in their 70s smoked brisket while 20-year-old neighbors played in a band. A retired democratic district attorney had drinks with a republican city council member, and childfree couples made cotton candy for families as their kids played in the street. It’s how we all met, and now we are constantly hanging out on one another’s porches whenever the weather is nice.

This kind of local community building isn’t rocket science. It’s a formula we’ve been following for hundreds of years. When Emily Post published her book Etiquette in 1922, it was the standard. “If strangers move into a neighborhood in a small town or in the country, or at a watering place, it is not only unfriendly but uncivil for their neighbors not to call on them,” she wrote. “Two ladies of equal age or position may either one say, ‘I wish you would come to see me.’ To which the other replies ‘I will with pleasure.’”

When I ask why this isn’t common knowledge today, Rose wonders if we have fallen out of the habit. “I think there’s this dominant thing that people don’t see social skills as skills,” she says. “There’s this sense that if their social lives don’t just happen for them they must be weird or something. People feel permission to do really well at their careers, but people just don’t take charge of their social lives the same way. Then when you tell them, ‘hey you can do this thing,’ they do it.”

We don’t have to go to church or join bowling leagues, but we shouldn’t secede to a commune either. We can create cycling clubs and host poker nights and plan get-togethers on Sundays. We can cultivate the “Friends” ideal in our neighborhoods with the people who are already living close to us. We can meet likeminded friends but also become friends with un-likeminded people. When we do, we create something that’s so much better than a likeminded community. We create a united one.

“When shit goes down nobody gives a fuck about Trump or what their abortion policies are,” Lindsay says. “It's like, ‘Hey, are you good? Do you have a family meal that you want to cook up because we have some extra fuel over here and we have some rice.’”

We can create that no matter where we are. And no matter what we want for our lives. 

Rose and her husband eventually decided to move away from Fractal. The community attracted people who were typically younger, on sabbatical from work, and were into wearing “crazy clothes.” It was fun, for a time, but she said it was kind of like being at a festival all the time. Rose and her husband wanted to have children and didn’t want to keep bumping into their friends every time they walked out their front door. 

“As soon as I got pregnant, we were like, ‘okay, actually, this isn’t where we want to raise our kids. So let’s experiment with something else and see how that works.’ So we moved to Fort Greene, which is a really amazing neighborhood, and we did something really similar to Fractal but instead of being in the same apartment building, we helped our friends start a number of co-living houses, and then we also helped our friends move into studios nearby. Now we do run into people on the street, but much less. But also it's still really easy to coordinate because my friends all live within a 10-minute walk. You get the best of both worlds.”

They call their new neighborhood Fractal Two.

Listening to her story, I couldn’t help but think about the final episode of “Friends,” where Chandler and Monica decide to move out of their iconic rent-stabilized apartment to raise their kids. It’s a bittersweet ending, no more Joey stealing lasagna from the fridge, no more Rachel rushing in with a dating emergency. They each have different desires for their lives and that means living them out in different ways. But that doesn’t mean they can’t still be intentional about being together. 

Even as they are teary-eyed, leaving that apartment and that time of their lives, the implication is clear:

I’ll see you at coffee tomorrow.


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