04:27 AM

CultureWatch: Should Cafes Become Cheap Office Spaces Or Places For Community Interaction?

Most of the cafes in my San Francisco neighborhood have people staring into their laptops, they are like libraries with piped music. Yet for hundreds of years cafes used to be centers of debate and interaction.

Some of the first newspapers grew out of the newsletters associated with cafes.

Today there is little conversation in cafes and when I do chat with friends or business contacts, I feel self-conscious, I feel I'm disturbing the screen focused concentration of other patrons.

It's largely because many cafes are being used as cheap office space. Our modern workforce is rapidly turning into independent "consultants" and contractors performing digital work. But cafes weren't designed for such uses.

If they are to be used as an office space why not have an area set up as a meeting room that could be rented by the hour? Or small booths for meetings? Why not have a fax and a printer available?

These days cafes seem caught in a limbo, they are neither good office spaces or good at fulfilling their traditional neighborhood roles.

But things could be changing. Some cafe owners are discouraging the laptop crowd by turning off the Wi-Fi and blocking power outlets.

Margaret Rosas pointed me to a Santa Cruz cafe whose owner has done just that and caused a local controversy.

Alan Hawrylyshen posted the owner's (Manthri Srinath) reasons for the change:

Our perspective after doing this a quarter-century, is that we operate coffeehouses with a view to creating a space for community to gather. We have only accidentally become a "WiFi cafe", by virtue of the fact that we haven't done anything to dispel the notion that we are. Now that we are doing so, it is understandable that some of our clients are surprised and upset. For this, I apologize.

Internet use results in a disconnect between the user and ones' physical surroundings, similar to watching television. No moral judgement here. I do it too. In a coffeehouse however, this results in rooms full of solitary people with no connection to the space or the people around them and has the unfortunate effect of crowding out any other sort of activity. Which of course is how we come to the misconception that we are a "WiFi cafe".

... we have also come to the realization that the use of our space, "the Commons" if you will, is something of a zero-sum proposition. We can either have rooms full of laptop users or rooms half-full of folks having a cup of coffee with a friend. Not both.

We have chosen to return to our roots as a coffeehouse where folks can come to converse with friends, read books, hold meetings and religious studies, listen to live music and generally have an experience that transcends Explorer or - if you're a bit more savvy - Firefox. We regretfully realize that this means that people who "must" have Internet access will be unable to use our space, at least for now, unless they bring in wireless cards or tethering capability. Of course, on the flip side, it's been nice to see a new clientele who want something different from a coffeehouse.

... I'm sure there are ways for us to solve everyone's connectivity issues, but this really is not our charter. There are many things we could do to make money. Selling umbrellas and offering/charging for WiFi access are two of them. We're in neither business.

We're old-style coffeehouse operators who came to this pass by accident. We were pioneers in offering WiFi when hardly anyone knew what it was, and we will be pioneers in moving beyond it. We're comfortable in that space. It's largely been why we operate the busiest cafes in town.

You can read the full post and discussion here: Geek Friendly Cafe - Santa Cruz Geeks | Google Groups

It's refreshing to see this type of thing. And its good to see a cafe owner bringing back discussion and debate to cafes, although it's ironic that the subject is his cafe. Maybe this will encourage other cafes to follow or even become more specialized.

Some cafes could focus on offering great wifi and office-like facilities. Others would be more traditional. Others more like restaurants and bars.

I can see myself working in one cafe, strolling over to another one for lunch, maybe a late-afternoon meeting with friends at another, then catching an early evening lecture or performance at another cafe.

Each one would be set up for such activities instead of each cafe trying to become a hybrid space that doesn't fully satisfy either type of customer.

Since there are so many cafes these days, creating differentiation would be a prudent survival strategy.

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Please see:

Wallace Baine: Free Wi-Fi and the 'tragedy of the commons" - Santa Cruz Sentinel