Coffee and wifi. Really?

Yes, really. In the about section, I say ‘The internet café is dead. Long live the café (with wifi)’. Let me explain that a little bit.

In the Sensory Sociology module I was taking last year, my supervisor, Dr Nina Wakeford mentioned the 73 Urban Journeys project, an ethnography by Kat Jungnickel of the 73 bus route in London commencing in 2003. You can still take a look at the results of the project online and it makes for fascinating reading.

The main impression that l came away with was the strong feature of internet cafes along the bus route. In 2003, that was par for the course, the internet wasn’t so ubiquitous – don’t get me wrong, it was well on its way at the time.

But even though that study is nearly a decade old, so much has changed. Let’s face it: the ‘café’ in internet café wasn’t the highlight. The internet café of old was row upon row of desktop computers with a desk where you paid for your internet access by the minute and a refrigerator stocked with drinks to serve as refreshment.

You went to an internet café because you didn’t have internet access at home, or you weren’t at home and you need to get in touch with others online or you needed to print off a document on the fly. Or maybe the internet café was your gaming community – a place where you played MMPORGs

But over the past five years we have seen a shift against internet cafes full of fixed computers for hire. We can infer that this is due to an increase in mobile devices and the mainstream introduction of  free or cheap wifi and mobile internet (3G and 4G) services.

This has shifted internet use into the traditional café. It becomes fascinating when you consider that the cafe is a social place that is taken over by people consuming coffee and participating in work. And this is due to an invisible force that simultaneously connects us to distant others, yet disconnects us from those in our immediate space.

As a self-proclaimed caffeine addict and coffee snob, I first experienced the traditional café tip into a co-working space in early 2011. I had just moved from Fremantle, Australia where the café experience is gastronomic (or at least trying to be) to Manchester, where the café experience was one part social experience, another part co-working experience. This was the same across high street coffee chains where frantic students on Oxford Road carried out group work and essay writing, to the independent cafes in the Northern Quarter where freelance creatives and coders would gather around a big, communal table, working socially.

I found myself working out of the latter cafe a lot when I was living in Manchester and again when I was visiting friends in recent months. There’s something about working communally  in an environment that isn’t specifically labelled as ‘office’ – yes, that even includes ‘home offices’ – that allows a different type of productivity.

Although most cafes seem welcoming to people coming in to use their wifi, others aren’t so keen on the intrusion it has on the ‘turning tables over’ process in order to make a profit. Here’s a sign I spotted on the register at a cafe near my work which perfectly sums up the tension:

"Wifi will be turned off between 12-3 due to lunchtime rush" - sign on the till at Store St Espresso, London

“Wifi will be turned off between 12-3 due to lunchtime rush” – sign on the till at Store St Espresso, London

This blog will record the journey of examining this shift of wifi reshaping the cafe experience.

There will be coffee, there will be wifi, there will be sociology and there will be great lashings of ethnography. Join me on the adventure.