One of the joys of the Silicon Valley mentality is the sense of collaborative humor. Someone will put something out there that they think is funny, and someone entirely unrelated will riff on it, adding to the original joke, extending it, or bouncing it into an entirely unrelated domain. It serves the same function as witty cocktail party banter: it passes the time and gives people a chance to show each other how clever they are. Most importantly, I think, it builds community by making everyone feel good about being in on something together.
The most visible and long-running example of this at Google is Stan, the T. Rex skeleton standing guard outside Building 43. How and why someone decided it was a good idea to have a T. Rex is a story in and of itself, but some months after he was installed, Stan found himself accompanied by half a dozen pink plastic lawn flamingos (distant progeny, perhaps?).
It was only a week or two later that someone took the initiative to move the flamingos into Stan’s gaping skeletal maw, giving the impression that he was snacking on his phosphorescent offspring. At risk of digressing beyond recovery, you have to accept that this makes for strangely self-referential art: a fiberglass dinosaur feasting on representations of its descendants made from petrochemicals that, to some extent, are composed of original dinosaur.
Anyhow, from that moment, the game was on. The next time I noticed, it was Revenge of the Flamingos, and Stan was mobbed – positively mobbed – by an army of the pink things. And I’d pay good money (or at least buy a beer) for having had the foresight to snap a photo of the next intervention, when the flamingos were all flat on the ground, wire “feet” up in the air. Next to them, on its side, was a barrel onto which someone had affixed a massive photoshopped label reading “Corry’s Flamingo Death” in the style of “Corry’s Slug and Snail Death” sold in garden shops.
But the flamingos came back. On Cinco de Mayo, they and their reconciled ancestor were wearing matching sombreros and Mexican-style panchos. And on some other occasion someone placed Groucho glasses on all the surviving plastic birds and fashioned a dinosaur-sized pair for Stan. At one point, I recall, Stan wore pink leggings and a tutu.
The thing is, I have no reason to believe that any of this was centrally planned or organized. It was simply someone appreciating someone else’s cleverness and taking the initiative to add a bit of their own.
Which brings me back to Topeka.
Back in 2010, Google was first poking its head into the realm of high-speed fiber. It solicited applications from communities that were interested in being beta sites, and was bowled over by more than a thousand applications. As Wikipedia explains:
The request form was simple, and, some have argued, too straightforward. This led to various attention-getting behaviors by those hoping to have their town selected.
The story of our t-shirt begins with an announcement by the mayor of Topeka, Kansas that, as of March 1st, 2010, the city of Topeka would be known as “Google, Kansas” to reflect the city’s commitment to the future. Snaps and props to the good folk who live there – I don’t think any of us saw that coming.
It’s hard not to want to reward a sense of humor like that – a willingness to be downright silly to make a point, so a lot of us were kind of disappointed that Topeka didn’t make the cut for the first round of deployments. But they got something almost as good: one month later, on April 1st, the company blog announced that Google was changing its name to “Topeka”.
Well played. Of course, every t-shirt-loving engineer with a stash of Google shirts now wanted a “Topeka” shirt, and we were astounded to discover that no such thing existed.
Fortunately, the internet has bred wild and wonderful business models no one could have foreseen a few years ago; companies like Cafe Press and CustomInk exist and can do breathtakingly fast turnaround if you throw money at them. Some folks in Building 41 had an order that evening, and less than two weeks later were sporting their own custom bootleg “Topeka”s, of which I have a well-worn example.