The Mani family had posed for a photo with the oversized “Like” symbol that guards Facebook’s idyllic Menlo Park headquarters, but they weren’t allowed into 1 Hacker Way. No tourists are, unless they have an appointment with an employee.
The Toronto residents enjoyed themselves anyway, and later that day, Eva Mani changed her Facebook cover photo to an image of the smiling family of four at Google’s sunny offices.
In the parking lot, her two teenage sons argued about the results of their visit.
Rahul Mani, who loves to code and wants to grow up to be an engineer, said he felt like he knew Facebook better after seeing its offices.
His older brother Rohan disagreed: “All we did was find the sign and take pictures with it! How do you feel like you know Facebook better?”
Tech tourism is big—thousands of people come to Silicon Valley each year from all over the world. Browsing Instagram location tags for Facebook, Google, and Apple reveal hundreds of posts in dozens of languages. I spoke to people from Canada, Spain, Italy, Hong Kong, Colombia, Chile, Japan, the Philippines, Texas, and California on the tech campuses for this story.
So what do the tourists get out of it? Can you interact with Google any more in person that you would at google.com? The tech giants are causing seismic changes the world over, but they’re not historical landmarks open to the public in the way a museum is. No matter how many times Apple calls its stores “town squares,” these are private buildings full of people on computers. They don’t offer tours.
Google and Apple, which both operate visitor centers open to the public, are more friendly to tourists than the offices of YouTube, Netflix, Instagram, and Facebook, which only offer photo opps with their logos on the side of the road. YouTube is just 15 miles south of San Francisco proper, and if you keep driving from there past highway billboards advertising webinar software and iPhones, you’ll see Facebook and Instagram next, then Google, then Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix, and, eventually, eBay, a full 56 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. You won’t find a parking spot at any of them.
A YouTube engineer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional reprisal, summed it up: “It’s very strange. I’m not sure what people get out of it. The only maybe interesting things to see are all behind closed doors, but even then it’s just an office.”
The tourist experience at YouTube is much the same as at Facebook. Visitors without employee connections aren’t allowed into the offices, but they can take a picture with the sign out front. A security guard at YouTube confirmed the company doesn’t offer tours: “There’s not much to see.”
But these are lifestyle brands as much as they are technology companies, and people have toured their sites billions of times. Instagram employees Instagram themselves at Instagram HQ, and YouTubers take pictures with that same barren sign to post about meetings with company liaisons. A picture at a Silicon Valley company, whether you’re there for work or not, confers a preferred status of intellect and wealth. You seem to be in control, however briefly, of the architecture of the internet we all use.
For some, the reasons for visiting don’t evoke so many questions.
“Why go to Google? Because it’s my life. I use Google every day, so I’m curious to see where all the creations come from,” said Clement Poidatz, a resident of Milan, standing in front of the Facebook sign.
He and a friend from Spain had come to Facebook “just to say we’ve been here. It’s once in a lifetime that we’ll be here, so why not?” As a fan of the Netflix mafia drama Suburra, he also planned to visit the video streaming company, joking that he wanted to ask about the new season.
Even after the scandals that Facebook has endured, both this year and farther in the past, visitors still pour in. Fame is fame. Kanako Yanai had come from Tokyo to see Facebook because she watched The Social Network three years ago.
For young tourists like Rahul, Silicon Valley also presents a vision of the future. Students from a computer graphics class at Pittsburg High School, an hour north of Silicon Valley, came to Google after visiting the Computer History Museum. Five girls sat in the Android sculpture garden, populated with statues of the operating system’s logo transfigured into various desserts.
Carsheala Bankston, a senior, said, “The museum made me feel like a real computer scientist, like I actually knew what I was doing…You see computers from the beginning, and when you get to the modern part, you’re like, ‘Oh this is what I do in class.’”
Dayahna Celestine, also a senior, added, “There was a sign about Boolean expressions, and we do Booleans in class. We’re actually doing what we came to see.”
They had just left the Google visitor center, where tourists can buy Google-branded t-shirts, sweatshirts, $37 stuffed animal Androids, and some Google products like the Chromecast or a Nest thermostat. The location’s conversion from office space to store isn’t quite finished; an artist was painting a mural on a wall the day I came. Visitors can also look up their hometowns on a massive Google Earth display.
In comparison to the museum, the tech giant had disappointed the girls.
“I was expecting to see Google phones and Chromebooks, but it was just Google water bottles. Then there’s this park with no slides or swings,” Celestine said, gesturing to the Android sculptures.
To make matters worse, the students’ de facto tour guide had bailed on them. (Google doesn’t offer formal tours, so the guide would have been an employee.)
But before I could ask them more, our interview was interrupted by the appearance of one of their classmates riding a Google Bike, painted Google’s distinctive tricolor and open for anyone to ride on the company’s campus. The girls rushed to grab bikes of their own and rode in circles in the nearby parking lot.
Other Toronto tourists in the visitor center were having the same debate as Rahul and Rohan were at Facebook.
“I don’t think you could really get to know the brand better here. Google is a search engine, and it sells things like phones and whatever,” said George Springer, a teenager who had come with his family.
He felt the same way about Facebook, which the family had visited earlier in the day: “The other one’s a social media company; you don’t have to go to the physical location to know anything about it. Anywhere you access it online, it’s the same.”
“Google appears to be tracking tourists’ movements as they shop.”
His mother Dora replied, “But this is headquarters. This is where it all originates. That’s why we’re here.”
George’s father Peter gloomily chimed in: “You don’t have to see where it’s made. It’s not like we’re talking about a car, where you can tour the factory. This is another industrial area. Any city has an industrial manufacturing area…I’d rather be driving up in the hills. You can see concrete and steel anywhere.”
But Dora got the last word: “Here we are on the other side of the country from Toronto. We’re already Googling everything. Our whole life is Google. Let’s take a trip down and see where all this stuff goes on. Maybe it’s just a wall, just another brick and mortar building, maybe there’s more! We don’t know. We’ve never been here! It’s an adventure!”
Google’s physical spaces are more like its digital ones than Peter Singer may think. The company mines people’s bodies for data just as it does to their actions online. Two Velodyne LIDAR sensors, the kind used to guide self-driving cars, whir in the gift shop above the heads of visitors. Google appears to be tracking tourists’ movements as they shop. The company did not respond to request for comment on what it does with that data.
The Pittsburg High girls weren’t the only ones let down by their visit.
eBay, one of the oldest Silicon Valley successes, appears confused about what it wants to do with visitors. When I told a security guard I was a reporter and asked him about tourists at eBay, he said that the cafe was open to the public and that sellers sometimes came through. So did the odd tourist, he said, though none seemed to be there that day. He became upset when I asked him his name for this story and said he hadn’t known I was a reporter. I left the lobby.
On the cafe’s patio, a second security guard approached me and requested I leave, saying that the company “restricts access to only eBay employees and people with appointments.” A third security guard, this time driving an SUV with its siren lights on, followed me out of the parking lot, pointing her phone camera at my car.
eBay did not respond to request for clarification on the lobby policy.
The debates about seeing tech companies in person are noticeably absent at Apple’s visitor center, a soft bungalow whose the roof appears supported by columns of air.
On a rainy March Sunday, Families romped around the glass-and-wood building in pods, buying devices, coffee, and $40 Apple-Park-branded t-shirts. The shirts, like the iPhone, are made in China.
Apple calls its $108 million visitor center “an architectural extension of our private campus.” It’s been open since November 2017 and smells like a museum gift shop. Employees explain that the gray stone staircases and corners of the aluminum roof bend into the same curve as the edge of your iPhone, a talking point that sometimes makes its way to tourists’ Instagram posts.
“I thought we could have gone inside the ring. Since we’re here, we hoped to see everything, but the iPad thing was cool,” said Cindy Lam, a Boston University student from Hong Kong.
She said the seeing the office, even from afar, made her want to work at Apple. She bought a t-shirt.
“I’m an Apple user, and I like their products, but now I like them even more,” she said.
Mark Badella drove two and a half hours from Sacramento so his 3-year-old son Leon could play at the visitor’s center.
“[Leon] loves going to Apple stores. He always wants to go,” Mark said. “He’s familiar with the iPhone. Even a 3-year-old can use the iPhone with a swiping gesture. Maybe he draws a connection between that and the real world.”
The iPhone seems to have influenced how Leon interacts with the world. He wants every screen to respond to his touch. As we spoke, he tried to swipe right on a giant display Apple uses for demonstrations. It wasn’t a touch screen.
Visitors aren’t allowed into the actual Apple Park, designed by starchitect Norman Foster, so they’re given a substitute: a model of the huge ring, which, viewed through an iPad, jumps to life in augmented reality. Looking from the roof deck, the iconic ring is obscured behind a stand of trees. Roughly 80 percent of the office’s grounds are professionally landscaped. The placement of that grove blocking the gawkers might be an accident; it might not. While the company declined to comment, Apple did hire a tree specialist for its new campus who met with Steve Jobs himself, a CEO notorious for his exacting attention to detail.