Wireless and Cafe Culture

In her column, McLaren tells the story of Zoots cafe in Toronto.  Trying to lure customers, the cafe owners offered free wireless.  And customers came, but they never left.  They turned the cafe into an office away from the office and tables into virtual study carrels.  “Ostensibly,” writes McLauren echoing something a I say in my book, cafes are “public spaces, but they feel [like the] private sector.”

But this was also something of business problem.

“As more people plugged in, the energy of the cafe began to sink,” reported Zoots owner, Melanie Jainsse, “People would turn up, buy a $2 tea, hunker down, and sit there for five or six hours not buying anything or talking to anyone. It really started to buy me.”

So Janisse covered up the plugs with duct tape.

At first, customers hated the change.  They wanted their wireless. But eventually, Janisse claims, the cafe became more vibrant and even busier.  “We’re packed all the time now,” she says, “People take the board games out of drawers, they play chess, they write in notebooks.  They talk about art, it’s great.  I’m providing an environment for people who to breather air, not a haven for some jerk in skinny jeans who wants to slouch over his e-mail all day.”

At some level, I’m down with Janisse.  Wireless helps cafe customers to create their private spaces within the coffee shop, and they do, it seems, sometime get in the way of talk.  They sometimes make cafes feel like study halls; you feel guilt if you talk out loud.

But there maybe Janisse is missing something, alternative forms of community.  Certainly twitter and facebook and even e-mails are the basis for other kinds of talk and exchange and much of this takes shapes in the coffeehouse.

But the question is, I guess, what kind of talk matters the most?  Does talk — the kind of talk that nurtures community and connections and perhaps even democracy (nod to Habermas here and to the Penny Universities of England) — need to be face to face?  Is this the most important talk, the most essential to community?  Isn’t this the kind of talk that leads to other kinds of talk and can go in all kinds of directions?

Is twitter talk or facebook talk somehow less talk than face-to-face talk?  Is it just a prelude to face-to-face talk in person, perhaps a wireless, free coffee shop?  What kind of talk matters?  And where is the coffeehouse is this process?  Can it do both, be a place for real talk and virtual talk?  Any thoughts?