After finishing Writing on the Wall, my life’s new goal is to either locate or become the proprietor of a real-life coffeehouse that operates like the ones Standage describes in Chapter 6. Whether or not they actually existed, the idea of an “egalitarian new intellectual space” (104) where all can exchange new knowledge in diverse fields and imbibe my favorite caffeinated beverage sounds like heaven on earth. In the words of Liz Lemon:
Sadly, I can’t think of a single real-life commercial establishment that functions as such. I have never in my life been in a chain or independent coffee retailer that fosters the actively social “speculative environment” of their predecessors; they are more often filled with people glued to their technology, books, or other distractions in an otherwise social and public place.
Where I do find those environments, or at least analogous cultural structures, is in the virtual world. Like the alleged coffeehouses in the days of Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren, certain online communities function as networks driven by discussion and transactions that are based around knowledge sharing. As the resident reddit enthusiast, I have to admit that upon reading the chapter on coffeehouses, the self-professed “front page of the internet” was the first comparable website that came to mind.
In June of 2012, redditor /u/Dapper77 described reddit as “a place friendly to thought, relationships, arguments, and to those that wish to challenge those genres.” Subreddits, or topic/theme-based forums within the site, parallel the coffeehouses that developed a specific client base. Like Jonathan’s, which drew seventeenth-century businessmen, /r/history attracts historians and history enthusiasts for questions, debate, and other content that is relevant to their interests. The site has areas for users to talk about literally almost anything they can think of, and if a subreddit doesn’t exist, you can create it. Best of all, it’s all free!
The diversity and availability of content options can mean different things for different people. Personally, I like it for the opportunity to learn new things about any topic that strikes my interest. Serial killers, suggestions for slowcooker recipes, adorable corgis, colorized historical images, and tips on skincare routines: I can find information and communities immersed in each topic online.
Like the coffeehouses, most of our myriad social networking or information-sharing sites have been vilified as “distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful work” (111). At least with reddit, you’re (generally) learning something new, whether or not it is actually useful information. Plus, the site hasn’t been overrun with irrelevant content such as ads and games, like the fictional “Friendface” from British Channel 4’s The IT Crowd.
While the environment of intellectual sharing and discussion is one of reddit’s strong points, there are certainly detracting factors. For instance, there will always be people whose sole purpose in life seems to be posting responses that are rude, offensive, or generally irrelevant or irritating. Often, these exchanges function like the one that Standage describes on pages 40 and 41, particularly the “comment thread” between Severus and Successus.
Additionally, instead of having face-to-face, real-time interaction, users are separated by time and space, which negates the socialization aspect that makes the idea of coffeehouses so attractive. If you wanted to get really meta, you could go to a coffeehouse and use reddit from there! As someone who is often most comfortable interacting with strangers through friendly, down-to-earth intellectual discussion, and assuming that they did actually exist, I look forward to the day when coffeehouses make a triumphant return!