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The Starbucks Digital Network, Engagement, Enlightenment and Third Places

In a recent interview at TheGrill media and entertainment conference, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz extolled the virtues of video streaming and other proprietary media that will soon be made available via free Wi-Fi on the Starbuck Digital Network. At the end of the interview, he briefly mentions the unique opportunity that Starbucks offers as a third place in America. Offering customers more engaging content through their wireless devices while they are in the stores may well represent some unique opportunities for the content providers and consumers. However, it is likely to diminish the real-world conversation, sense of community and potential for serendipitous enlightenment that are central elements to the ideal of a third place.

Ironically, in a blog post by Josh Dickey about Schultz' interview at The Wrap, Schultz is quoted as saying

We’ve got to completely allow ourselves to engage in conversations that we’d normally be afraid of.

As might inferred from my earlier post about the coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks, I completely agree with this sentiment, and while this new network - and Starbucks' extensive social media presence - may promote online conversations, it is likely to do so at the expense of the kinds of interactions traditionally cultivated in coffeehouses. I won't rehash that entire earlier post, but I would like to review a bit of context about "third places":

Ray Oldenburg has also researched the history of coffeehouse culture, extending it to other types of hangouts in his classic book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. In this book, which is largely responsible for the popularization of [the notion of] the third place, Oldenburg praises the virtues of these "homes away from home" where "unrelated people relate" and "conversation is the main activity", offering spaces wherein "the full spectrum of local humanity" can engage in "inclusive sociability" and practice an "ease of association" that is rarely found elsewhere. Oldenburg argues that such places offer individual benefits - novelty, broadening of perspective and "spiritual tonic" - as well as community benefits - fostering the development of civil society, democracy and civic engagement.

In his interview, Schultz speaks glowingly about values, guiding principles, emotional connection and customer loyalty. He talks about research showing how Starbucks customers had traditionally used Wi-Fi primarily for synching email, but increasingly use Wi-Fi in more "engaging" ways. He shows a slide highlighting the ways that Starbucks has become "a powerful force" in social media, and is clearly excited about how they will now take advantage of the unique opportunity afforded by "captive" customers in their stores. He talks about the 9 million people who have registered a Starbucks Rewards card and the potential for integrating a "national physical footprint" with a new digital network. But as far as I can tell, all these new developments will simply promote more public privatism, portable cocooning and the more effective use of devices as interaction shields through which people can be alone together and enjoy joint solitude.


All of this is all the more ironic given another video I recently watched (not in a Starbucks) - Steven Johnson's TED talk about Where Good Ideas Come From - highlighting the importance of the "liquid networks" and serendipitous interactions in traditional coffeehouses to the evolution of innovative ideas:

The English coffee house was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years, what we now call the Enlightenment ... it was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share [ideas] ... An astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.

I have shared positive perspectives in the past about Howard Schultz' promotion of passion, perseverance and partnership and my own Starbucks experience. And I have written about the research and development through which I have partnered with others to design and deploy technology to promote conversation and community in coffeehouses (although this work was focused primarily on independent coffeehouses). The new Starbucks Digital Network may provide many benefits to many stakeholders - especially those in the media and entertainment industry - and I have no doubt it will promote digital engagement and perhaps even enlightenment, but it is largely incompatible with the idea of Starbucks serving as a true third place.

But who knows? Maybe someone will watch Steven Johnson's video while sitting at a Starbucks, and decide to disengage from the Wi-Fi long enough to expose themselves to the potentially enlightening people and ideas surrounding them right there in the store.

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