WeWork Was the Embodiment of Silicon Valley’s Culture of Delusion

WeWork, the coworking start-up once valuated at $47 billion, was a cult masquerading as a company pretending to be a movement. Focusing on its “charismatic” CEO, Adam Neumann, a new Hulu documentary misses a chance to expose the irrationality and waste of an economic system that lets such charlatanism thrive.

Adam Neumann, cofounder and then-CEO of WeWork, speaks onstage in Los Angeles in 2019. (Michael Kovac/Getty Images for WeWork)

In one latter-season episode of NBC’s The Office, the character of Ryan Howard (played by B. J. Novak) tries to get his coworkers to invest in a new venture called WUPHF.com. On its face, WUPHF (pronounced “woof”) doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary — its supposedly innovative promise being a service that spams every single one of a recipient’s social channels whenever a user sends out a message or text (and prints out a corresponding “wuphf” at the nearest available printer). In imagining WUPHF, the episode’s writer Aaron Shure was obviously taking a gentle dig at Silicon Valley start-up culture and the transparently silly ideas it so often produces.

Still, take even a cursory look at some of the high-profile corporate bullshit artists of the past decade and the degrees of difference separating Howard’s idiotic scheme from its real-world equivalents quickly begin to blur. Throw in some start-up cash, a reverential media hit or two, replace the meek Novak character with an MBA-wielding egomaniac, and it fast becomes quite easy to imagine WUPHF enjoying an Icarus-like ascent in the world of big tech, even if few people were ever actually inclined to use it. Elizabeth Holmes, after all, took the now defunct Theranos to a $9 billion valuation before it finally went under (the minor wrinkle in the company’s business strategy being that its widely touted blood-test technology never actually worked and was physically impossible). Billy McFarland established enough of a reputation as an up-and-coming entrepreneur that he successfully sold people on a music festival that didn’t really exist — similarly committing fraud along the way.

There’s plenty, of course, to distinguish the two cases. McFarland, for what it’s worth, never got anywhere near as rich as Holmes, and his business ideas were decidedly less ambitious than the proposed giant leap in medical technology on which she made her name. Nevertheless, Theranos and the Fyre Festival are both instructive case studies in how the now hegemonic culture of big tech can encourage quack enterprises unmoored from any productive function, innovation, or, in some cases, tangible results of any kind. They’re also textbook examples of the way certain entrepreneurial personalities can become so grossly overvalued that their mythos ultimately obscures reality itself.

Which brings us to WeWork, the subject of the new Hulu documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn from director Jed Rothstein and the object of one of the most epic tech implosions in recent history — the company sliding from a $47 billion valuation to talk of possible bankruptcy in the span of just six weeks. Even amid stiff competition, the WeWork con stands in a class of its own as the ultimate emperor-has-no-clothes parable of tech industry bullshit run amok: its central figure, the mercurial Adam Neumann, being a flesh-and-blood commentary on how a shallow veneer of Promethean ambition can mask the most pedestrian ideas in an aura of unearned mystique.

Neumann, like McFarland, originally tried his hand at a number of ventures before launching WeWork in 2010 — among them a line of women’s shoes and a business called Krawlers that sold kneepads for babies. Rendered in plain speak and stripped of pretense, the basic idea behind WeWork was as prosaic as they come: the company acquired spaces in major cities, renovated to give them a modernist aesthetic, then rented them out to freelancers, gig workers, and various small businesses nebulously calling themselves “start-ups.” If this sounds more like speculative rentierism than technological innovation, that’s because it was — a fact which ultimately did nothing to hinder WeWork’s stratospheric rise to become one of the world’s most preposterously overvalued companies. As Rothstein’s film quite entertainingly demonstrates, the difference between an utterly generic real estate scheme and a groundbreaking exercise in disruption is often hype, credulity, and little else.

Predictably enough, much of the buzz revolved around the figure of Neumann himself, who successfully conned employees and investors alike with a story of communitarian life and work partly drawn from his own background as an Israeli-American expat. Uber, but for kibbutz life, or so the pitch implied, with the company eventually overextending itself into a sprawling empire of sister ventures like WeLive and WeGrow as it tried to branch out beyond the realm of coworking space. In Rothstein’s hands, we’re treated to a capable and engaging retelling of the story, much of it centering heavily on Neumann and his supposed appeal (detailed at length by sympathetic former employees who share their stories of life at the company).

WeWork’s cult-like internal culture also gets a thorough treatment by way of both testimonials and footage of its annual staff outings — gatherings that, initially at least, resemble a version of what the Fyre Festival aspired to be (Billy McFarland, incidentally, was once a WeWork tenant). Later in the film, of course, it turns out that these exhausting retreats centered more on laborious presentations than alcohol-soaked camaraderie; one former employee described speeches that would last “for almost eight hours a day for maybe two or three days.” (“To make sure people were actually attending,” he adds, “we had tracking bracelets on.”) On these occasions, it seems, attendees would be subjected to messianic sermons by people like Neumann and his wife Rebekah (a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow), who is seen in the film dispensing hokey soundbites like the following (which sounds very much like the kind of spiel one hears right before a robed guru known only as The Leader puts a mysterious purple liquid in your hands and rather forcefully instructs you to drink):

The We is, I think, the really big thing in the mission of what we’re doing. So let’s just close our eyes for one second and hold hands. . . . Just think about a reality in which the energy we’re feeling right now with one another is an energy of unity, an energy where I am You and you are Me and we all are We.

Neumann’s own schtick is similarly a fusion of New Agey bullshit, self-help hokum, and neoliberal slam poetry — falling somewhere in tone between a Davos luncheon and what you might expect to hear inside the sort of establishment that hosts “wellness workshops.” None of it really means anything, but meaning is ultimately secondary to the goal of creating shared delusion through personal enigma and mystique. When Neumann says things like, “I sometimes feel that every single person in this room is me having a different experience,” it’s clear that he to some extent believes his own bullshit, but also that he possesses the especially volcanic strain of narcissism that the corporate world too often confuses with charisma.

For a time, in any case, the schtick served him pretty well — WeWork and its CEO rode the hype train to cosmic heights even as questions swirled about its business model, profitability, and decidedly dubious accounting methods. It secured billions from investment partners like SoftBank, a fund partly owned by Japanese venture capitalist Masayoshi Son, which practically shoveled money into the company, some of it coming by way of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. The grift, needless to say, eventually came crashing down. A wave of layoffs hit and plans for an IPO were put on indefinite hiatus, while Neumann himself was ditched as CEO.

As seen in Rothstein’s documentary, the implosion is more than a little satisfying to behold, even if its conclusion offers limited catharsis (as WeWork fell back to Earth and thousands of employees lost their jobs, the founder still walked away with a $1.2 billion exit package). Amusing and competently executed, the film offers up plenty of fodder for anyone interested in a good old tale of corporate fraudulence and deceit. Unfortunately, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn stops short of asking bigger questions about the wider ecosystem in which its titular subject was allowed to flourish — or the media culture that initially swallowed and dutifully regurgitated Neumann’s vapid proselytism. Watching him and his wife in action, anyone less than neck-deep in the self-serving fables of Silicon Valley is bound to wonder how anyone could ever have believed such nakedly transparent bullshit, and Rothstein’s documentary, despite its strengths, doesn’t really offer us an answer.

In its final arc, in fact, the film actually tries to salvage something about the WeWork idea, faintly gesturing toward a noble, community-minded mission eclipsed by one man’s greed. It’s an unsatisfying coda to an entertaining journey through what is undeniably one of the greatest tales of corporate hucksterism twenty-first-century capitalism has yet produced. Alas, Rothstein’s documentary focuses its lens on Neumann to such an extent that it leaves any wider critique of the system that produced him on the cutting room floor. As Wendy Liu argued in a 2020 essay for Tribune:

WeWork is not a unique case of hubris and greed — it speaks to the fragility of the apparatus of venture capital as a whole, calling into question the entrepreneurial myth that legitimates contemporary capitalism. Ultimately, the rise and fall of WeWork is an indictment of our economic system.

Indeed, WeWork may be an extraordinary case, but it is hardly an exceptional one. The culture that enabled Neumann and his scheme has given us innumerable ventures of dubious social value, the most successful of which all use the same fallacious rhetoric of “innovation” to garnish their rank profit-seeking. The epilogue of Rothstein’s film is, of course, absolutely right to suggest that the foundations for community today are shaky, particularly in big metropoles. Big tech, however, is by definition incapable of inventing a sealant for the cracks.