Wed 06 October 2010

...and what's the deal with San Francisco? (along with my travels)

It's been a good two months since I last updated this. Ordinarily I'd be a little angry that I let it slide for that long, but in this case I think it's warranted. For those interested, here's a summary of what I've been up to, along with my thoughts on San Francisco in general.

Since leaving (see my previous post for more information on that), I've been pretty much all over the United States. About a week after leaving Webs, I embarked on an epic road trip with a friend that went from North Carolina all the way to California. Driving across the USA is a fun journey, one that I recommend everyone take at some point. The midwest is a surprisingly desolate place; never before have I seen so many sex shops randomly dotting the countryside.

Out of all the states that we passed through, a choice few gave me some of the best memories. Louisville, Kentucky, was a fun stop, as I got to finally meet up with my long time friend (from my old IRC days) Zach Winter. We used to fight like brothers back in the day, but he's become a pretty awesome web developer/designer in the time I've known him, so between that and talking about old IRC crap we probably wasted a good four hours there. Riverton, Wyoming was pretty cool, as it's a totally small town in the middle of nowhere with an indian casino. Driving through Yellowstone was something to behold, and the same goes for the desert-esque areas. I could go on here, but there's enough to write a small novel at this point.

California was an interesting time period, and is actually the primary reason I'm even writing this post. I enjoy getting out and trying new areas of the world, traveling and exploring is a truly exhilarating experience that, in many regards, can't be matched. As is (seemingly) the norm, being a developer, I naturally headed to San Francisco. The city (and the "Valley" in general) are routinely hyped as being an incredible experience if you're in the industry. Living there taught me two things: I have a lot of reservations about the "startup" industry as a whole, and San Francisco as an area to live in isn't all it's hyped up to be.

I'm putting my reservations on hold for another post, as I'd like to more carefully formulate those into something more concise to read. In terms of the living area, though, I'll put it bluntly: San Francisco is a trashy, over-hyped city that masquerades as a clean, eco-friendly environment where there's a seemingly open exchange of new ideas every day.

Before the inevitable shit storm starts here...

Let's pick apart that statement.

Walk down any street in the Mission, SOMA, or even North Beach, and look at the amount of trash on the ground. Now, with a straight face, tell me that San Francisco is a clean city - I'll bet money that you can't do it. This is counter to a city like New York City (NYC); with NYC, it's a trash fest, sure, but nobody is going to try and tell you that it's actually a clean city. After living in the DC area for most of my life, and checking out Chicago, Boston, and Seattle (all of which are fairly clean in their nicer areas, which I'm comparing to the nicer areas of San Francisco), I'd say the same sentiment goes for those cities.

I'll cede the point that this issue can go either way depending on who you talk to, but my experience was that most people tried to claim it's a clean city, and it quite frankly astounded me. Your mileage on this one may vary, and I invite you to judge for yourself.

What follows is a dissection of some of the allures of San Francisco living, at least from what I gathered through the various groups I hung out with in my time there. We'll go one by one here. Feel free to grab a snack if you're going to read any further, by the way.

The tech scene

This one could be construed as a personal preference, so I'll keep this short. The tech scene in San Francisco bothers me much more than I ever thought possible. Perhaps I just went to the Valley at a low point in history, but seriously, what the hell is with the amount of startups building on top of something like Twitter's API? Beyond that, how many god damn social networks need to re-invent the fucking wheel before someone finally wakes up and decides that enough is enough?

Hell, I can even deal with the existence of these things, but the fact that you're taking funding for such concepts? You do realize there are more important things in the world than blowing a couple hundred grand on sharing pictures through Twitter, right?

There are a lot of cool ideas and new technologies being developed out in San Francisco, but for every awesome idea, there's about four ridiculous ones that are setting themselves up for failure by doing something as stupid as relying on the API of a network that has a history of letting people do all the discovery work for them, then building their own version.

Tech companies (both good and bad) can exist anywhere, but it's a myth that only great tech companies exist (and can exist) in San Francisco. Live where you actually enjoy living and don't feel pressured to accept and praise an area based on a set-forth notion that it's the end-all-be-all of an industry.

The food scene

Huzzah, burritos. What's there to get for lunch? Oh... burritos. Oh, wait, no, there's about three different French places all serving the same stuff, too, so I suppose we could do that for lunch.

Past nine o'clock? Nevermind half those places if you want a quick bite, they're either closed or going to be closing at that time. So your options then become... oh, go into a bar, order a pizza, or get another burrito. Such incredible choices in a city supposedly known for its food choices - I definitely never had those choices anywhere else! Why would I ever leave this place?

The people

I met a lot of awesome people in San Francisco, don't get me wrong. Thing is, I've met a lot of awesome people in every city I've been to. This is just part of society in general - no matter where you go, there's people you like, and people you don't like.

With that in mind, let's take an objective look at San Francisco. 90% of the people I met were transplants, and they all came for one of two reasons: technology (the startup world specifically), or some artistic venture that hasn't panned out and they heard that San Francisco is an "accepting" city. This all ends up melding into a very "me too" culture, where it's nothing but people clamoring for attention around their newest idea.

This wouldn't even be that big of a deal if it wasn't compounded by the fact that everyone essentially circle-jerks one another on these concepts to a ridiculous degree. Yeah, you think you can form a real business around something like a Firefox browser extension? Please take a seat over there, your head has been in the clouds for far too long (no pun intended).

Get to the point please

San Francisco feels incredibly fake, and gets a free pass due to the overall net worth of the Valley. The city is an incredibly trashy place to live, it has an incredibly overbearing "me too" culture, and almost everything that's supposedly great about the city can easily be found in other areas that are cleaner and provide a better overall living experience.

It's funny, really. If you try to explain any of this to anyone living San Francisco, there's a good chance you'll send them into a mode where they feel the need to defend the aforementioned points. The only other city I've found where people get that extreme is - surprise, surprise - New York City. San Francisco is like the punk kid in school who, even though they're really no different, felt the need to dress completely different and act out to feel individual.

I suppose that's worked for people throughout history, though, so there's not too much more to say on the matter. If you need me, though, I'll be traveling around to cities that are a bit more pleasant and fun overall (and, hey, if you enjoy living in San Francisco, more power to you, but you just make me scratch my head).

Ryan around the Web