After grabbing your favorite coffee drink from the over-worked barista, you sit down next to Tom in the busy Starbucks where he has saved you both a table and ask him a question about his book, Writing on the Wall. He starts going on and on about his research, just like he always does when you meet up for coffee:
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Alright, just kidding.
Tom Standage wasn’t really in a coffeehouse when he said those things and neither were you when you heard them. I’m afraid the smell of espresso that still lingers in the air is simply your imagination.
But what a “meta” moment that has just occurred! This was a conversation in a virtual (audio-created) coffeehouse about the history of coffeehouses, accessible to you via what Standage might describe as a digital “coffeehouse,” the WordPress interface.
What can this weird listening experience tell us about the relationship between the historical coffeehouse and our digital play areas?
In his book, Standage describes online discussion and social-media forums just like this WordPress site as having the same “vibrant, freewheeling spirit of the coffeehouse” with “a free and open space for debate and discussion” (123). It is clear that he sees online discussion communities as analogous to those meeting grounds of the past, where class and social status were (in theory) discarded in favor of meaningful intellectual and social activity. In connecting these two spaces, he doesn’t go so far as to posit a wholly equal relationship; Standage is more interested in proving the concept of pre-digital social media than navigating the specific nuances between these different kinds of technologies.
Yet, as I read his chapter on coffeehouses and scientific journals, I was struck by his positioning of internet forums alongside the former in terms of content and quality of conversation. Scientific journals aren’t given the same “free and open” description as coffeehouses and forums are given.
But how “free and open” are internet forums, truly? Beyond issues of accessibility as well as economic and socio-political power structures governing interest and ability to participate (things that affect all forms of information-sharing across history), the short clip above points us to at least two issues that we should consider in relating internet forums to coffeehouses and scientific journals both.
First, though internet forums do seem to engender a conversational style not unlike those of the coffeehouse, their text is permanent in a way that face-to-face discussion could never be. It is not just its placement in the archive of the forum–messages can be saved and screenshot so that they remain even after the original poster has deleted it from the discussion board. Although the oral quality of Standage’s dialogue gives the appearance of immediate, easy (“free and open”) conversation, you are able to play it over and over again at your leisure. In this sense, the permanence of the text of online forums follows scientific journals more so than coffeehouses.
Second, just as scientific journals were prized in part because of their “geographical reach” (121), so too are internet forums able to reach even further and wider. As opposed to the close proximity of the coffeehouse, the internet forum is able to receive visitors and posters from disparate locations, many that we will never know even came. Because of this, it is often open to the same critique of credibility as scientific journals–a truth well-represented in the earlier audio clip, which featured my personal mash-up of a Standage interview and many different free atmospheric sounds (such as footsteps, coffee pouring, and relative background noise) instead of a true recording of him in a Starbucks. Although I think we are learning more and more to think through issues of credibility (and here I don’t mean issues of ethos as much as the ability to prove you actually are the person you say you are) in written online text and image, the presupposed integrity of audio and video still seems pervasive. In terms of proximity and the ensuing issues of credibility, then, internet forums are again more similar to scientific journals than to coffeehouses.
I think that Standage is doing good work in countering contemporary anxieties about social media by delineating its impulses throughout history. Having been given these broad strokes, however, we should think more in-depth about how to understand specific kinds of contemporary digital technology and social media, as they relate to previous information-sharing techniques and to one another. Though he readily admits that his “analogy between ancient (analog) and modern (digital) forms of social media is not perfect” (241), I think it is important that, if we’re willing to follow his conception of social media, we map out exactly what the differences are.
What other specific issues do you consider when trying to relate newer social media to Standage’s older examples? What do we make of their interaction and interference with one another? How can we extend or revise the kinds of connections Standage’s book has created for us?