Wifi, Cafes and Solitude

Coffee shops are waking up to some problems with wifi, it seems. [via the excellent Crumb Trail and IFTF].In Seattle, a

five-year-old cafe added free Wi-Fi when it seemed their customers wanted it a couple of years ago. It initially brought in more people, she said, but over the past year “we noticed a significant change in the environment of the cafe.” Before Wi-Fi, “People talked to each other, strangers met each other,” she said. Solitary activities might involve reading and writing, but it was part of the milieu. “Those people co-existed with people having conversations,” said Strongin.

But “over the past year it seems that nobody talks to each other any more,” she said. On the weekends, 80 to 90 percent of tables and chairs are taken up by people using computers.

There’s some interesting further commentary on the Crumb Trail concerning the interplay of on and offline conversations. Notably, a great post by Wade Roush on the why’s and why not’s of backchannelling at conferences, and a thought-provoking one by Stowe Boyd on why “Continual Partial Attention” is the ethical thing to do in today’s world, despite arguments that interruptions are bad for the brain.

A while ago I wondered whether social software was mimicking the coffee-shop dynamic, and Simon Roberts over at Ideas Bazaar had some great things to say on the same topic, taking a more cross-cultural interesting slant. What is curious about the Seattle Coffee Shop (real world) example above, is not that they don’t talk. I think they do, just via laptops, blogs, etc. What’s curious to me is that, even though a lot of the roles of the old-fashioned coffee shop get subsumed by their online variants, people still go to coffee shops (rather than staying at home). The coffee can’t be that good, can it?

Equally, from Wade’s post, people still go to old-fashioned talks, even though these are increasingly typed/podcasted/whatever but when there they don’t fully listen.

It’s bizarre. And if mobile phones, ICQ, Skype, backchannelling is about relationships, as Stowe says, then surely they’re about human relationships. And if they’re about human relationships, then isn’t it odd that it seems to be turning traditional real world social hubs into ghost towns?