The limits of WiFi

Here’s an interesting story. A small coffee shop in Seattle has become so concerned about the change in atmosphere brought about by its free WiFi connections that the owners have decided to switch off the service at weekends. The cafe’s co-owner told Glenn Fleishman that they had added free Wi-Fi when it seemed their customers wanted it a couple of years ago.

It initially brought in more people, she said, but over the past year “we noticed a significant change in the environment of the cafe.” Before Wi-Fi, “People talked to each other, strangers met each other,” she 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. On the weekends, 80 to 90 percent of tables and chairs are taken up by people using computers. Many laptop users occupy two or more seats by themselves, as well. Victrola isn’t on the way to anywhere; it’s in the middle of a vibrant stretch of shops and restaurants on Capitol Hill’s 15th Ave. It’s exactly the kind of place that you want to sit down in, not just breeze through.

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. The staff doesn’t want to have to enforce the cafe’s unspoken policy of making a purchase to use the space (and the Wi-Fi), and on the occasions that they approach a non-buyer about a purchase asking, “Can I get you a beverage?” the squatter often becomes defensive, explains they’ve bought a lot in the past or just the day before.

“It’s just really really difficult. We’ve had so many heated debates about it. We want people to linger at the cafe. We’re not a fast-food coffeeshop. We want people to feel comfortable staying here as long as they please,” Strongin said.

Hmmm… I know of at least one person who has built a substantial little software business by working in such a cafe and riding on its free broadband link. Wonder if he’s offered to give them some of his subsequent profits.