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?

  • Countinuous, not Continual. More comments will arrive via trackback, later today.

  • Sorry – and thanks for pointing that out, (I realise it’s more than just a typo). Look forward to seeing what you have to say! 🙂

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  • Hi Piers,

    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?

    I think this might be a temporary effect, even though I think it is a strange effect for now. My guess is it has to do with not really having adapted our strategies yet to these new patterns of interaction. It used to be we had deep relationships with people physically near, now all those other great people around the world are attracting our attention as well. But we don’t know yet how to deal with this increased number of intenser relationships (keeping more balls in the air basically). Eventually we will find new ways of doing this. (To me it resembles how when mobile phones were first introduced, we had to learn to switch them off at certain times, and had to learn how not to irritate others while using it.)

    Through my on-line contacts my need to meet people face to face has grown. Organizing BlogWalks are an expression of this need. During these meetings we try to not have connectivity, so that we may be really involved in the here and now. Basically it is all about presence, and how that is perceived.

    best,

    Ton

  • Makes sound sense to me, Ton, as ever – and I very much like the analogy with mobile phones’ being introduced. But I think that in our efforts to strike a balance, we shouldn’t underestimate the need for those physically present around the backchannellers/CPA-types to feel as though you’re paying them some heed.

    Otherwise Stowe’s Continuous Partial Attention shebang begins to sound much more like the drinks party syndrome, where Mr A (listening) is continually looking over (talking) Mr B’s shoulder, clocking the rest of the room. As you say it’s a presence thing, and I think that Mr B’s role as physically present needs to be factored in. I suppose I think the more distracted A is, then the harder it is for B to say something interesting.

    And, er, of course, from there it’s a short step to seeing a Queen re-release, with Freddie Mercury singing: “don’t stop me now, I’m having to go on-line, I’m out of control” … 🙂