Should you join a commune in 2021? TikTok says yes!
As the pandemic forces us to live increasingly solitary lives, the lure of a simplistic community based alternative has never been stronger.
A month or so ago, Jonny was sitting in bed depressed. Unable to return to university because of the pandemic and working as a dishwasher in his home state of New Hampshire, the 19-year-old was looking for an escape. “I felt almost as if I couldn't really make a change in the world, living this way. I felt completely alienated,” he recalls. So, as one does, he packed his bags and moved to a commune.
Well, a community farm, to be exact, which houses around 50 people, is 75% self-sustaining, and operates with a communalist ethos. Soon after his arrival, Jonny started using his TikTok account — @jonnysjourney, where he had already amassed a few thousand followers — to document his daily life on the farm, answer questions from curious viewers, and debunk myths about communal living. Now, with over 65,000 followers, Jonny is one of the main figures of Commune TikTok.
Existing at the intersection of Sustainability TikTok, Spirituality TikTok and Communist TikTok, Commune TikTok is a niche that is growing in popularity on the platform. The hashtag #commune boasts close to nine million views, #intentionalcommunity around 430,000, and #communetiktok just over 20,000. Users such as @communecowboy, @urcommunefriend and @egg_lena offer an insight into a life where the usual parameters of success and productivity have been discarded, and where the ever-turning wheel of capitalism has ground to a halt.
Commune TikTok aims to show that meaning and purpose can be found in the silence and stillness of nature, away from the demands of urban corporate life — and viewers are intrigued. “Every other comment is people saying they want to join our community,” says Cole, 24, aka @communecowboy. He moved to a commune in Oregon a few months ago and started his TikTok account in December 2020. Since then, he has seen first-hand just how receptive young people are to the idea of communes. “Gen Z questions a lot of things that previous generations never really questioned, especially the idea of working all day to make profits for someone higher up,” he says. “They don’t want to be doing these soul-deadening tasks anymore. I think they're looking at these intentional communities and how people take care of each other out there, and they’re really interested in that homestead style of living.”
By destigmatising an often misunderstood lifestyle, Commune TikTok makes communal living sound like a perfectly viable, even desirable, option for those who have become disenchanted by the prospect of a lifelong 9-5. “I've seen the growth in the idea of community skyrocket,” Jonny points out. “People are told everyday that socialism is not possible and that it only works in theory. And then they see people like me post about living on a communalist farm, and they're like, ‘Oh, Jesus! There are alternatives.’”
Jonny and Cole’s mindset — disillusioned with the promises of capitalism yet hopeful that things can change for the better — is not one that solely exists on social media. In fact, it’s been gaining traction for a while now. The ideals are reminiscent of Jenny Odell’s recently published New York Times bestseller, the half-self-help guide and half-political manifesto How to Do Nothing. In the book, the author argues that our modern capitalist society places such a disproportionate emphasis on hustling, being productive, and always outperforming ourselves that we have lost sight of what makes life truly meaningful. She advocates for a reconnection with both others and nature, and a redefinition of what makes us “useful” to society beyond our economic output.
Odell’s diagnosis of our society’s ills, and the potential remedies she suggests, are echoed by communal living expert Graham Meltzer. An academic and author, Meltzer has been a resident of one the UK’s largest intentional communities, the Findhorn Ecovillage in north-east Scotland, for 15 years. “I put a lot of the dysfunction in society today down to the fact that we've lost that dependency to connection, to integration into a larger whole,” he says. “We’re not designed to be individualistic.”
For Peter Foster, an academic specialised in communal living, the pandemic has prompted a long-overdue reckoning with this self-centred mindset. The past year has indeed forced us into introspection and compelled us to slow down, making us think less individualistically and reconsider the things that really matter, with more focus on communal public health and safety. “The loneliness of city life is a motivating factor for joining a community, and the sense of isolation imposed by the lockdown will definitely act as an impetus,” Foster says. “I do hear people talking more and more about the need to connect with people, and current lifestyles just aren't satisfying that,” he adds.
But is moving to a commune in the middle of nowhere really the key to happiness? Well, it could be, but it does come at a cost. As Odell explains, fully self-sustaining communes often struggle to reconcile the rights of individuals and the needs of the group, and more often than not, communality prevails over privacy. For people who like to have their own space or have social batteries that take time to replenish, communes can feel overwhelming. Other challenges include learning how to deal with the conflict that will inevitably arise, and making peace with being removed from society. For Jonny though, it’s all worth it. “You're sacrificing a chunk of what you're used to, to replace it with something that's more beneficial to society in general,” he says. “I'm not going to sugarcoat it, it's difficult. But if you're willing to give up the instant gratification you get from capitalism, you will experience the pros of communal living, the pros being family, the full value of your labour, belonging, and purpose.”
Ultimately, however, communal living is not the miraculous antidote to capitalism’s failures, for the simple reason that it is almost impossible to remain completely insulated from the political and economic fabric of modern life. “There is no such thing as a clean break or a blank slate in this world,” Odell writes.
Because it is so difficult to extricate ourselves from society as it exists, it is unlikely that communes will become the dominant form of living anytime soon. Foster estimates that no country currently has more than 5% of its population living in intentional communities, and that percentage is unlikely to increase much. However, both Meltzer and Foster believe that softer forms of community living such as co-housing — the halfway point between a commune and a regular apartment building, with people having their own space but also sharing amenities, values, and resources — will become more popular in the near future.
Until then, we can turn to Jonny, Cole, and their peers to teach us some valuable lessons about finding meaning outside of work, disentangling our self-worth from our productivity, and living a life that aligns with our values. The spirit of communal living lives on through Commune TikTok, creating a new generation of people who are always one soul-crushing retail shift away from going off-the-grid.