The name Actual Cafe came from a conversation on this very topic. I was telling a friend that we're becoming more dependent on 'virtual' socializing, and that it's become a substitute for the real thing in many cases. And that we, as human beings, need actual contact in order to stay healthy - real face-to-face interaction. This is a key value of the Cafe.
When I was in early planning stages, I was considering leaving wifi off the menu entirely. I gave this some serious thought, for two reasons: 1) social interaction in the Cafe is so important to me, and 2) to avoid the potential for abuse. But, having thought about it, I decided that the positive aspects of connectivity are substantial, and that they justify providing the service. Which left me having to find ways to address the two problems - how can I encourage people to socialize even though there's wifi service? and how can I avoid being taken advantage of?
Let me expound on the abuse issue for a bit. It's not intuitive to many consumers of wifi in coffee shops that there is a finite resource at play. Most people think of wifi as cheap and abundant, and can't understand why there's any problem with providing it without limits or controversy. But, in the case of a cafe, the finite resource isn't the wifi primarily (although it is finite, and bandwidth hogs can take more than their fair share), it's the space inside the cafe. And that space can have a substantial cost.
The value of space in a cafe is variable. When it's empty, the value of a seat is nominal. It doesn't cost me much in electricity to keep the lights on and power a single laptop. But, when it's even a little bit full, a single seat can have a much higher value. Maybe that seat is the one with the best outside view, or the one with just the right amount of shade, or the one next to the cute girl/boy over there. And the fact that the right seat is unavailable might mean the difference between a customer coming in and passing by. This is compounded as the cafe gets more full. And a cafe can't exist without making sales - without paying customers coming and going pretty constantly.
And, on a personal note...let me tell you: if I'm not planning to set up my laptop and put some headphones on and disconnect from the world around me for a couple hours, when I look around a cafe and see that everyone around me is neck deep in their screens, I won't sit down. And so, here's the dillema. I think all of you can recall an experience at a coffee shop like the one I'm describing - where seemingly everyone inside is computing, and there's not much room for anything else to happen. It's not fun, and I want to avoid creating this sort of atmosphere at all costs.
So, how do we avoid this?
I considered various strategies:
- turn off the wifi at certain times of the day (too disruptive)
- put up some signs asking people to be considerate (too easy to ignore)
- approach people one-on-one and ask them to leave (too disruptive, and likely to end badly)
- limit available outlets on the floor (a bit passive) - one of the problems with this is that if there are any outlets available, they'll be overwhelmed with demand, and those seats will never be available to anyone else
- cross my fingers and hope there are no problems (risky, and hard to adjust later)
In the end, I'm leaning toward a solution which will generate time-limited passwords for users (sort of like the one Peet's uses). I'll give them away with a purchase (or maybe just for the asking). When they expire, the user will need another, which they can get by making another purchase (or maybe just for the asking again). I'll also be vocal about our policy, by posting some stuff on the website about it, and maybe having some printed materials around the Cafe for folks who ask questions.
Still reading? Good. It's interactive time. I'd love some feedback.
- Is it a better idea to keep wifi out of the picture entirely?
- Does the idea of limiting wifi annoy you? If so, is there a way to mitigate that annoyance (communication, etc.)?
- Should wifi use be given away without a purchase required?
- Do you understand why limiting wifi might be necessary for the success of the Cafe?
- Are there other approaches to limiting use that seem more reasonable or likely to succeed?
I'm sure some of you have opinions on this sort of thing - would love to see them aired here.