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.”





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