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Free WiFi Zones vs. WiFi-Free Zones: Virtual vs. Physical Communities

The Victrola coffeehouse in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle has shut down its free wireless Internet access (WiFi) on Saturdays and Sundays, in part because people were squatting in -- and tuning out from -- the physical place, and using WiFi-enabled laptops to instead tune into their virtual worlds.  Glenn Fleischman has an excellent article on the social issues that led to this change in policy, including the following quotes:

Before Wi-Fi, “People talked to each other, strangers met each other,” [Victrola co-owner Jen Strongin] 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.

One of the people commenting on Glenn's article, DMA, notes

the feel and vibe of the cafe suffers due to the reclusive nature of the computing experience. The establishment turns into something like a library instead of a slightly noisy, unique, completely-Seattle cafe where people find random ways to relate to each other.

The article also delves into economic issues:

Worse than just the sheer number of laptop users, Strongin noted, is that many of these patrons will camp six to eight hours -- and not buy anything. This seemed astounding to me, but she said that it was typical, not unusual.

I, too, am surprised at this kind of chutzpah, but I find the other, more social, implications more intriguing. I wonder whether or why using a computer is [perceived as] more reclusive than reading a book or newspaper, or writing on paper.  Is it related to the device or object itself and the social affordances it offers, something about the level or type of engagement with the each object, or the type of people who tend to choose each medium?  I believe I've been every bit as engrossed in reading or writing on paper as I have been in reading or writing on a laptop, but I don't know what kind of perceptions others may have of me using the various media.  I suppose that the content of books or newspapers are more visible to others, and so may provide a conversation starter for someone who has read a particular book, or regularly reads a newspaper ... or has some other affinity with -- or aversion to -- a particular item that is visible to both reader/writer and others nearby in physical space.  Perhaps it's the mystery of not knowing what someone is doing on a laptop that reduces their approachability.  In that regard, I suppose that the laptop in a coffeehouse is the antithesis of a "front porch" (a la Scott Ginsberg).

As noted by Benjamin, another commentator on Glenn's article, Sean Savage and his colleagues have put together a system, PlaceSite, that provides a portal through which WiFi-enabled laptops can be used to share information (digitally) with others who are in a coffeehouse (or teahouse, as the case may be), helping to bring people using digital technology in a shared physical space closer together.  Whether those people are more or less likely to actually buy anything remains to be seen.

[Thanks, Sean and Bart!]

Update, June 5, 2005: Several other articles on the topic of WiFi at coffeehouses:

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