Places and Spaces

A Starbucks Experience

I've always liked Starbucks -- the coffee, the stores and the company.  Yesterday, I had an especially inspiring experience at a Starbucks store, with special coffee and personal service by a wonderful barista, while meeting with an extremely creative former Starbucks employee.

I went to the Starbucks at Overlake Village to meet with Paul Williams, who recently left Starbucks to start his own company, Idea Sandbox, to help "connect people with solutions" [aside: I am really enjoying connecting with people who are about connecting people lately ... we connectors have to click together! <groan>].  I met Paul through his blog, while searching for information on ThinkSpot before the Idea Day event I went to last month.  Paul had been thinking -- and blogging -- about a ThinkSpot-like spot, and discovered this "meeting place with attitude" very shortly before signing a lease for a place in which he intended to create a very similar space across the street from the ThinkSpot.  I did some "lateral browsing" on Paul's site, read about Idea Sandbox and several other posts -- including his very creative "odranoeL ekiL etirW" idea -- and, as I am increasingly wont to do when I meet an interesting person in the blogosphere (who lives in the local area), sent an email to see if we might get together.

I arrived a bit early, and asked Arlene, the barista, whether it might be possible to sample the Kenya Kirinyaga, which has an interesting description, but at $13 for a half-pound, represents a non-trivial investment (for me).  She kindly offered to make a press pot for me.  Paul arrived as she was doing so, and we soon went over to our table.  A short time later, Arlene brought over the press pot with two small cups so that we could both enjoy the sample (which we did, thoroughly).  After an hour or so, she brought over a couple of cups of icewater and straws, saying she thought maybe we might be getting thirsty.  Paul and I were engaged in a pretty lively and far-ranging conversation, and although I hadn’t recognized it, I was thirsty!

Ironically, one of the many topics Paul and I were talking about was the Starbucks experience -- what Howard Schultz describes as one "where you are treated positively, where someone goes out of her way to make you feel special, where you're welcomed with a smile and assumed to be intelligent".  This was one of the most outstanding café experiences I have had anywhere.  I really felt like Arlene took a very personal interest in ensuring that we had the best possible experience, and she was very successful.  Not only did it reflect well on Arlene and that store, but the entire Starbucks brand received a big boost in my mind (and it already enjoyed a strong personal brand position).

Arlene left the store before we did, so Paul picked up a card from Amy, the store manager, that had the mantra “Make a difference in someone’s day” on the back.  Arlene certainly made a big difference in my day, and I look forward to future Starbucks experiences!


Podcasting Ideas at the ThinkSpot

Podcasting was the topic for the fourth Idea Day, held last night at a cool meeting space called the ThinkSpotAlex Williams and Matt May gave a very informal, informative and interactive presentation on podcasting, the practice of making audio or video files available for subscription via the web, so that one can automatically download the latest audio or video from a site simply by updating one's iPod.  I admit that I had not been paying much attention to the increasing popularity of podcasting (both producing and consuming), but Alex and Matt, and others in the audience, helped me recognize that this really is a Big Thing (and, I believe, a Good Thing).

Among the interesting tidbits I picked up:

  • The word podcasting was named New Oxford American Dictionary "Word of the Year" ... even though it was not even included in the 2005 print edition of the dictionary (which was published earlier in the year).
  • Podcasting is an instance of the Long Tail phenomenon, dimishing the importance of traditional media market leaders and creating new opportunities outside the mainstream ... so that instead of a few $100B media companies, we might have 100,000 $1M media companies, and instead of a few megastars and blockbusters, we may have a far more equitable distribution of popularity ... and wealth.
  • From a podcast consumer's perspective, as the number of podcasts grows, it becomes increasingly important to have effective ways of finding the podcasts in which I am, or might be, interested.  There are already podcast directories (e.g., PodCastAlley) and podcast-specific search engines (e.g., Podscope), but podasting is likely to greatly enhance the importance of word-of-mouth marketing, and people are already discovering new podcasts via del.icio.us links and [other] references on blogs they read.
  • From the podcast producer's point of view, it is just as important to "get found"; Matt suggested that it will become increasingly important to seek out and become members in online communities.
  • Podcasting may radically alter the notion of advertising and sponsorship.  Podcast consumers do not want to listen to traditional advertisements (e.g., 30-second spots), so advertisers will have to forge relationships with podcasters who are willing to explicitly promote their products or services (e.g., "I like X"), but doing so effectively (i.e., without losing podcast audience share) will require a high degree of trust, openness and authenticity ... offering a whole new dimension [for me] to the topic of social marketing I blogged about a year ago.
  • The cost and complexity for producing and publishing podcasts will decrease drastically this year, greatly reducing the "barriers to entry" for people who are creative, have good communication skills, and have an ability to connect with their audiences.  A big step toward media meritocracy ... and away from plutocracy.

I started wondering if these trends would eventually apply to sports as well, affecting the viewership -- and salaries -- of not only individual players but entire sports ... perhaps podcasts of kayaking or mountainbiking will become as popular as football ... with the attendant adjustment in salaries of the athletes.  I have long been bothered by the salary differential between great athletes and great teachers; maybe podcasting will provide a mechanism through which good teachers will finally start earning salaries that are commensurate with the value they provide to their communities ... especially since their communities can now be much greater than the classrooms in which they teach.

Speaking of communities and places, I have a special place in my heart for the name ThinkSpot, as the new author photo I uploaded for my weblog was taken at a contemplative place with a small sign reading "Thinking Spot" at the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Park near Vancouver, British Columbia.  ThinkSpot ("a meeting space with attitude and purpose") was a fabulous place to hold this event -- with large projection screens along three walls, good multimedia support, lots of light and ventilation and a general feeling of openness.  I look forward to returning there for next month's Idea Day, to hear about Doug Rushkoff's latest ideas ... and to attending the Podcast Hotel event that Alex is organizing later in the month (Seattle location TBA).

Finally, at a bar several of us went to after the presentation, I was sharing my perspective on academic research vs. entrepreneurship (or interestingness vs. passion) that I recently articulated in a Biznik interview.  A woman sitting next to me summed up entrepreneurship in a concise, compelling and very pithy way: passion in action.  Amen.


Togetherness vs. Interaction: Enjoying Aloneness in a Crowd

Chris Pluger wrote "Two Hours of Joint Solitude", a very thoughtful and provocative essay about his insights and experiences in a coffeehouse, sitting alone in a crowd, and philosophizing about issues of aloneness, togetherness and transcendence. 

We haven't fallen for a cleverly invented Madison Avenue advertising campaign when we gravitate towards coffee shops, where we can sit alone with other people and enjoy an evening and a cup of java and two hours of joint solitude. I think the existence of coffee shops, and the natural affinity we have for sitting in them, comes from deep within, from an unfulfilled longing that points us to a need we never knew we had.

Just as the feeling of hunger is a strong clue that something like food might exist, just as the sensation of thirst tells us there must be water to quench it, and just as our continual human quest for transcendence gives us a hint that there is something like a God who is above and beyond this world, so also the desire we have to share experiences, to simply be together, seems to tell us that people are supposed to be with other people and enjoy time in each other's company. We weren't meant to sequester ourselves behind tinted glass and soundproof modular office dividers and the high brick walls of planned communities.

We were meant for more fulfilling contacts, more intimate interaction, and deeper understandings. Our desire to sit together in coffee shops, our longing for deep connections and meaningful relationships, points to the reality that such relationships are possible, that such connections can be made, and such togetherness is our shared destiny as humans together on Earth.

Despite these observations about our fundamentally social nature, and the value for deeper, more meaningful connections, he also observes some countervailing tendencies of his own (that, I believe, are widely shared):

How out am I at this coffee shop? I'm actually looking at the same computer screen that I see at work all day. Except for a little lighthearted interaction with the barista, I haven't spoken to or even made eye contact with anyone yet.

The essay brought to mind the social contract of the familiar stranger, wherein people regularly observe, recognize, but do not interact with, others in their midst (lest they establish a precedent whereby they may feel compelled to interact during future encounters) ... an inclination -- or perhaps disinclination, depending on how you look at it -- that I can understand, and yet have trouble accepting.  I believe that social isolation and disconnection are defense mechanisms rooted in fear and scarcity, and that the world would be a better place if more people were more willing to embrace openness, vulnerability and abundance, by lowering their barriers and sharing their shadows and gold with those around them.

Chris' observations indicate that while he did not interact with anyone at the coffeeshop, he was keenly aware of -- and even appreciative of -- their presence.  I wonder how many missed opportunities for offering or receiving something of value from his transient neighbors transpired during his two hour experience of joint solitude ... and what the cumulative social cost of such missed opportunities amount to over all the times and places where people are unwilling to risk establishing more meaningful connections with others.


Howard Schultz on Human Needs: Community and Health Care

I keep coming across inspiring references to Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks.  Last week, I discovered a recent interview in KNOW Magazine entitled The Art of Creating Passionate Consumers, which included the following quotes:

  • ... consumers are demanding more. They want products or services that create a powerful and enduring emotional connection.
  • The fracturing of our humanity, fracturing of trust in public institutions and corporations has created significant cynicism. However, people want to be a part of something that they can believe in. They want to be associated with a product or service that they can rely on. Companies that are serving these emotional and human needs of the customers will really stand out amidst this cynical backdrop.
  • ... we are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee. The equity of the Starbucks brand is the humanity and intimacy of what goes on in the communities that exist in each and every location. We continually are reminded of the powerful need and desire for human contact and for community, which is a new, powerful force in determining consumer choices.

And today, I saw a reference in the Worthwhile Magazine blog to a Business week article about Schultz' recent testimony before the U.S. Senate on health care costs:

Starbucks Corp. will spend more on health insurance for its employees this year than on raw materials needed to brew its coffee, the company's chairman said Wednesday.

Howard Schultz, whose Seattle-based company provides health care coverage to employees who work at least 20 hours a week, said Starbucks has faced double-digit increases in insurance costs each of the last four years.

"It's completely non-sustainable," he said.

...

Schultz said Starbucks' benefits policy is a key reason it has low employee turnover and high productivity.

He declined to endorse any specific legislation, saying his goal was to raise awareness of the problem. But whatever solution is adopted, he said, "Every single American needs to have access to health insurance -- full-stop."

I like the reference to comprehensiveness, but what I think we really need is universally guaranteed access to a basic level of health care, not simply access to [private] health insurance, which can be declined or withdrawn based on business policies rather than the commonwealth -- or, perhaps, commonhealth -- of our citizens.  Riffing off one of his quotes in the KNOW Magazine interview:  Governments that are serving these emotional and human needs of the citizens will really stand out amidst this cynical backdrop.


More Community Displays in Cafes

Shortly after my last post about the community display at Common Grounds Coffee Company in Woodinville, I visited C. C. Espresso in Duvall and discovered another collection of community displays (photos of members of a community -- in this case, customers -- on a posterboard).

CcespressodoormirroredCcespressocommunitydisplay1_1

Ccespressocommunitydisplay2

An interesting variation is their "Customer of the Month" display -- a photo, name and little bit of info about one of their customers. 

Ccespressocustomerofthemonth

Some Starbucks stores use posters like this to profile / showcase one of their baristas.  I like the notion of turning that around and putting the focus on the customer(s).


Community Displays at Common Grounds Coffee Company

There's a great little drive-up espresso stand that recently opened down the road with a friendly and outgoing proprietor (Stephanie) and tasty organic espresso (Kalani).  Another feature I like about the place are the low-tech community displays -- photos of customers snapped by Stephanie that she's mounted on cardboard and placed in the windows of the espresso stand.

Commongroundscommunitydisplay1_1 Commongroundscommunitydisplay2_2

She snapped my photo a few weeks ago, and I look for it every time I drive up (alas, it has not yet appeared).  I suspect I'm not the only one who enjoys seeing myself highlighted in some way.  It will be interesting to see how Stephanie adapts these displays as her customer base grows -- there is a finite amount of space for the displays, and the individual photos on the displays.  One possibility may be to adopt the motif of posters in urban areas, where older photos (posters) are simply covered up by newer ones ... though I wonder what impact this may have on customers whose photos get overlaid.

Another aspect I've  noticed when I pass by the place is the community of people that increasingly appears to gather there: pedestrians hanging out by one or both windows, or sitting down at the picnic table they have there.

Commongrounds

I've often thought that this area could benefit from a third place where people could hang out and chat.  I never would have suspected an espresso stand would qualify, but I guess great good places can come in small packages.


Wirelessness and Shamelessness

I met Rick at The Lyon's Den coffee shoppe this morning to talk more about my business plan(s).  In addition to enjoying our conversation (he offered lots of great suggestions), the cozy atmosphere of the place and my first taste of Keemun tea, I was struck by a sign I saw posted on a meeting room at this gathering place:

Lyonsden2

The sign is encouraging people who use the room to buy something while they are there.  I find it hard to imagine using such a meeting room facility without buying something ... but then, I may be rather extreme in my desire to somehow compensate propietors for their offering(s), as I recently wrote about with respect to fee vs. free wine tastings.  I will admit that, under stressful circumstances, I sometimes use a restroom in a fast-food restaurant along the highway without buying anything, but I could not sit in a coffeehouse for an hour or two without purchasing anything there.

Lyonsden1

It's interesting that The Lyon's Den also has a policy limiting the use of its wireless network, based on purchases, as shown on yet another sign posted at the coffeehouse (a topic about which I, and others, commented recently).  I guess these signs show that coffeehouse "squatting" isn't limited to WiFi laptop users.


People, Food and Other Objects of Sociality in Small Urban Spaces

In his book "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces", William Whyte presents a number of observations and insightful analyses of the factors that promote or inhibit sociality in various spaces in urban areas.  I was reminded of the concept of object-centered sociality that I recently read (and blogged) about: shared objects providing the catalyst for social awareness and interactions.  Much of the online discussion about object-centered sociality is based on shared digital objects (although Jyri recently described an example of shared digital objects leading to a shared physical connection in a cafe). Whyte focuses on objects that draw people together in physical spaces ... primarily other people and food, noting that supply creates demand.

According to Whyte, while people may talk about "getting away", their choices often reveal a desire to be among other people ... lots of other people.  In fact, choice itself is a major factor in venue selection: socializing on a crowded street corner provides an easier and more polite exit strategy (and escape route) than being structurally being hemmed in.

In the center of the crowd, you have the maximum choice -- to break off, to continue ... If you know you can move if you want to, you feel more comfortable staying put.

I suspect this is the same factor that makes elevators such unsociable places ... and contributes to the risk of strking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on a plane (an example of which was recently described by Jane).

People attract other people, and food attracts people (who attract other people), so

If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food.

Whyte describes an outdoor cafe with ethnic food at St. Andrews Plaza in New York, where the seating was intentionally tightly packed.

[P]eople were compressed into meeting one another ... it is one of the most sociable of places ... I've never seen so many people striking up conversations, introducing people, saying hellos and goodbyes.

[Aside: way back when they served meals on airplanes, I remember the arrival of the meal as the most sociable period of a flight, when people sometimes took a break from their reading, writing or other activities to chat a bit as they eat.  And I also remember that that the snackbar car on the Metra commuter trains in Chicago I used to take was always far more sociable than any other car.  I don't think a snackbar on an elevator very practical, but perhaps some textual food, a la the Digital Elevator Poetry project demonstrated by James G. Robinson at UbiComp 2003.]

Other people and food both provide for what Whyte calls "triangulation":

[T]hat process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not [strangers].

Unusual -- one might even say, remarkable -- people (street characters, musicians and other entertainers) or objects (art, sculpture or [other] spectacular sights) provide great conversation openers, even -- perhaps especially -- if they are "bad", as bad acts (and bad works of art) may provoke more side comments than good ones ... remarkable food may fall in this category as well.

Whyte also refers to what might now be called the wisdom of crowds, with respect to people's ability -- and tendency -- to self-regulate.  In speaking of a public place's "effective capacity, that is, the number of people who by free choice will sit at a place during normal peak-use periods", he observes that

It's as if people had some instinctive sense of what is right overall for a place and were cooperating to maintain it that way, obligingly leaving, or sitting down, not sitting, to keep the density within range.

This notion of instinct and wisdom leads me to the last aspect of Whyte's book I want to mention here, which is the notion of attracting desirable vs. undesirable people in a public place, which reminded me of yet another book, "Love is Letting Go of Fear", by Gerald Jampolsky, in which he argues that every perception and action is motivated either by love or by fear, and the way to achieve greater joy and peace is to let go of fear.  Whyte expresses similar sentiments with respect to the design of public places:

Places designed with distrust get what they were looking for and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino ...  Fear proves itself ... The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else.

Jampolsky, as well as Marc Ian Barasch (and others) might question whether anyone is truly undesirable ... but I'll defer delving into that topic for another blog post.


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:


A Gathering on Gatherings

I attended the Pomegranate Center's Annual Gathering today, whose theme was "Community-Built Gathering Places".  The center's gathering places model is based on the premise that "unintentional encounters happen in intentional environments":

Gathering places are where social encounters happen freely and unexpectedly, contributing to a stronger sense of community, better relations among neighbors, reduced vandalism and crime, increased safety on crime, renewed volunteerism and stewardship, and enhanced environmental beauty.

Cason Swindle, Pomegranate Center Board President, welcomed the group of approximately 60 participants.  Milenko Matanovic then provided an introduction and overview for the event (and moderated discussions throughout the day).  The morning included presentations by

In the afternoon, we broke out into smaller subgroups led by the morning presenters for two sessions.  It was a tough choice, but I decided to attend the sessions by Linda and Ron.  I hope that much of the material will eventually be made available online ... meanwhile, I'll share a few of my notes below.

Continue reading "A Gathering on Gatherings" »