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The American Commune Is Back—Thanks to COVID, the Recession, and TikTok

Given all the instances of co-living for a shared benefit, it looks like we're at the start of another surge in communitarianism, even if its pioneers don't think of themselves that way.
September 17, 2020, 2:18pm
TikTok Hype Houses Are Basically Modern Communes: people dancing holding hands around tiktok logo
Illustration by Hunter French
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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced would-be digital nomad influencers to to find more fixed living situations. While they can't travel to party, creators are increasingly choosing to emphasize the "social" aspect of social isolation. Content creators are teaming up under the same roof, and their hype houses—collectives of TikTok stars who collaborate on videos while living in the same, typically luxe house—are becoming so common that some TikTokers are rolling out weeklong reveals to build… well, you get it.

The first big multiple-influencer home was Hype House, which gave the phenomenon its name, becoming an eponym like Band-Aids or Velcro. The hype house is a pre-pandemic phenomenon, but just barely. Taylor Lorenz first reported on Hype House in January of this year. By March, it appeared that the TikTok collab house trend was being disrupted by the onset of the pandemic—but not for long. More TikTok influencers, in Los Angeles and abroad, have since formed their own [Whatever] Houses—including Sway House, Clubhouse, and the V@ult House—and moved in together.

And, look, I love it! In particular, I love the much-derided adult hype house video from user @honeyhouse. I love our tour guide defensively preempting the phrase "TikTok House" with the word "adult." I love the obviously staged shots of his parade of roommates doing their influencer stage business, like we're meeting the crew assembling for an art heist or the cast of a 90s sitcom only Adult TikTokers are old enough to remember. I love that our narrator, who apparently makes videos like this for a living, speaks with precisely zero affect.

Most of all, I love that this guy straight-up lives in a commune and doesn't seem to realize it.

A commune is any group of (mostly) non-related people who live together to achieve a common goal. As everyone who's ever had a roommate knows, living with other people is hard. People don't volunteer to live with dozens of strangers unless they're dedicated to a common purpose, whether it be attempting to create the perfect society, high-quality tableware, or a massive social media following. As Timothy Miller writes, "Most communal groups have some independent reason for existence and adopt communal living as a vehicle for the achievement of specific goals."

Collaborating on short-form video content to expand your audience, land sponsorships, and pay rent on a mansion qualifies as a common goal, even if the word "commune" evokes images of yurts and potluck dinners more so than it does filming sponcon in Beverly Hills. The adult hype house video is derided, from what I can tell, because the residents of Honey House are adults, which makes the influencer collective thing seem corny. Which, sure, but it's also practical.

Right now, this communitarian take on working from home isn't unique to TikTokers. Influencers have been teaming up like this for years; it's standard practice for professional esports teams to require members to live in communal gaming houses. Also on the rise are "college collab houses," in which groups of college students trying to avoid both the on-campus COVID clusters and another year of living with their families jointly stake out their independence by renting a house together as a pod.

Roommates themselves aren't uncommon among young people in non-pandemic times, obviously: In the West, most people don't volunteer to live with their parents deep into their 20s and 30s unless something has gone seriously awry. Yet here we are, with a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds living with their parents for the first time since the Great Depression. This combination of financial instability paired with uncertainty about everything else—the election, the rise of fascism, climate change, uprisings against racist police violence—is creating the type of environment that compels Americans to seek stability and purpose in the form of a commune, which typically involves more than just a few people sharing a living space in the way young people often do.

The popularity of communal living in the U.S. has ebbed and flowed—typically receding during times of relative stability and growing during periods of social or economic tumult. But given all of these instances of co-living for a shared benefit, it looks like we're at the start of another surge in communitarianism, even if its pioneers don't think of themselves that way.

Despite the American self-image of exceptional individualism, the history of intentional communities in the United States is older than the nation itself. "Mother" Ann Lee led the Shakers from Manchester to the not-yet-united States, where the religious sect founded their first settlement in Watervliet, New York at the start of the Revolutionary War. Basing their community on the Bible's description of how the first Christians lived, the Shakers forbade the ownership of private property and held all of their finances and land in common, more or less operating by the maxim "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" a century before Marx wrote it. (Private property wasn't the only thing that was forbidden—the Shakers were also required to be celibate, which created significant recruitment problems.)

In the decades to follow, other religious communes, like the free-lovin' Oneida Community, would also base their community rules on their interpretation of Bible Communism. Even the secular utopian communities that sprouted up across the country largely eschewed private property in favor of some version of the thought, "How about we all live in a big house on a farm together?" It seemed like a pretty solid idea at the time: The federal government was still finding its footing; the Industrial Revolution was upending the economy and society writ large; and, with the help of some freaky weather and a religious revival, god-fearing Americans were convinced the Second Coming was right around the corner.

Many of these and other early 19th century communities didn't last. By the time the Civil War wrapped up, the communitarian movement had gone mostly quiet. Intentional communities still existed through the second World War, but with fewer proto-communist leaders promising a utopian future complete with a lemonade sea, early 20th century socialist collectives like Llano del Rio get less attention than their wacky forebears.

Fast-forward to the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement! The Vietnam War! The false security of the post-war economic boom giving way to cultural and political tumult! The nation entered the Cool Zone, which precipitated a spike in Americans dropping out of mainstream society in favor of living on a commune, though, this time, Bible Communism was mostly passed over in favor of building kickass geodesic domes.

The communal movement of the 60s—or communitarianism in general—wasn't necessarily all about escapism, though.The geodesic domes at Drop City were built by an artist collective who wanted to spend more time on their creative work and less time trying to pay rent; later communities, like the Radical Faeries, were gay separatist projects dedicated to queer liberation.

For their part, the TikTokers moving into hype houses are looking to expand their individual platforms by joining forces, and to do it in environments both lavish and, for their purposes, practical: Hype houses, by and large, offer shooting locations with good lighting, distance from neighbors to avoid noise complaints, enviable views, and community with people with the same career and aspirations. Even better if you can get a sponsor or a management company to underwrite the rent on your communal home, especially during a time when tens of millions of Americans are facing evictions.

Whether or not you're on TikTok: Why not move in with a bunch of friends for the sake of making content, or to try and have some semblance of an undergraduate college experience, or just, like, to not live with your mom, whether in an L.A. mansion or a cheap old house? With no end to the pandemic in sight and working from home inching closer to permanence each day, intentional communities might be the logical conclusion of pandemic pods. This shared domesticity is in keeping with historical precedent, after all: When American society is in upheaval, its residents band together and try to create their own, better micro-societies—ideally inside a geodesic dome, but a hype house is fine, too.

Follow Calvin Kasulke on Twitter.