Wednesday, January 27, 2010

laptop-free weekends - the experiment

I knew that the day would come eventually. It came much sooner than I thought, and has taken me by surprise.

It was the day when we filled up with laptop users, and became just another wifi shack, at least for a couple hours.

It happened this past weekend. And led me to losing many hours of sleep, trying to figure out how to handle the situation.

I was serious when I wrote our manifesto, and our tagline ('not just another wifi shack'). I didn't want this place to become just another Cafe full of people a couple feet from each other but so absorbed with their gadgets that they did not interact. To that end, I made a lot of design decisions - I made all our seating communal, I didn't go out of my way to install laptop power, I make sure the music is a bit livelier and louder than in most places. And I hoped that our mission would resonate with people and that behavior might be different here.

When I walked out into our dining room last week, and saw a sea of laptops, with tangles of power cords everywhere, and so many people wearing headphones, it really upset me. And so I set out to figure out what was so upsetting, and why.

And here's the thing I got to, after much agonizing - community doesn't come for free. We must each support it as individuals. And that means that I have the right to ask you - our customers - to help us make the Cafe a place that's a bit different. There are plenty of places in the area which are full of laptop users, and where such behavior is welcome (or at least tolerated).

There are financial reasons for wanting to limit the time that folks spend in seats, and they're important. What most people don't realize is that the margin of a business like this is razor-thin, and that we make most of our money during our peak times. If we lose money because all or most of our seats are taken by people who spend little money and much time, our business is at risk. Cafes fail all the time. When that happens, we all lose.

But this isn't the most important thing. It's more important to me that we re-discover the social webs that used to tie us together. Ennui, depression, boredom, and desperation are the result of long-term isolative behavior. We're about love, hope, discovery, creativity, and looking each other in the eye.

And so, we're embarking on an experiment. For the month of February, our weekends will be laptop-free. This may anger some. It's a risky thing for a brand-new business to do.

But it's so important, I can't not do it.

If it goes well, we'll make it a permanent feature of the Cafe. If not, we'll try something else. I'm open to suggestions that lead to the desired result.

If you haven't already seen it, you might be interested to read dialog I had with facebook fans several months before the Cafe opened, on this very topic (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Oakland-CA/Actual-Cafe/63896313499?v=app_2373072738&ref=ts#/topic.php?uid=63896313499&topic=11411). It wasn't conclusive, and this isn't either. We're just trying to make our way in a cold world. :)

(wish us luck!)

k
sal

12 comments:

  1. You do realize that the phrase "not just another wifi shack" implies that you are, in fact, a wifi shack (albeit something else as well)?

    For what it's worth, though, I was talking to my friend while getting lunch at Actual this past weekend...

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  2. I think that's a great compromise! Although there will be those awkward moments when you have to tap someone on the shoulder and tell them it's a no-no. Now if only you can teach some folks gadget etiquette you'd be set. I take my laptop to cafes occasionally to get some writing done, but I always buy stuff, tip the barista well, and make sure I'm not hogging space for someone new to sit down. (I also think it's rude for people to wear headphones in a cafe/rest/bar.) Honestly, I would be sad if you had a no laptop rule in place seven days a week, but I think this strikes a good balance. Good luck!

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  3. You're making a great move. I wrote the first "laptop-free cafe" story for The New York Times several years ago. I'd been following the growth of table squatters and the change in cafe culture, and a colleague pointed me to a local Seattle coffeeshop that was turning Wi-Fi off on weekends. There wasn't a movement then or now, but it made sense for them, and for other cafes I found.

    The original owners of the cafe sold out their roasting and shop business, and the new owners rescinded the policy and left Wi-Fi on all the time...for a while. After a year or so, they reinstituted Wi-Fi free weekends.

    This will totally work, because you will become known as the place where people go to talk. An ocean of laptops prevents conversation among those without them.

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  4. FANTASTIC, Sal. I'm one of those very occasional public laptop users, and it's only when I'm desperate to get something written up and sent out to a client or vendor.

    I too have seen the hippest coffee shop in town turn in to a money-losing wi-fi shack with no personality, the sound of a library at finals time and close altogether not too long after "the change".

    I hope this goes well for you, that your customers and community appreciate it for what it is and theyre-learn how to be a part of the moment.

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  5. I just drove by your groovy cafe tonite & am about to make it my #1 favorite, just from looking at it, and now from your website. Wow!

    Just have to 2nd one of the earlier commentors though-- as someone who is a recent Wifi Cafe Hunter & has been Googling around the Interweb for Best Wifi in the East Bay, when I first saw the moniker on your window "Not just another Wifi Shack", my first thought was, "Excellent! A cafe who's primary clientele is Laptop Users! Plus amenities! Bingo!"

    Now that I've visited your website, I see that you're about something else-- which it turns out is great, and is something that I'm also about-- real, built-in, neighborly community vibes-- human contact-- people. I'm psyched!

    Just suggesting that your slogan may actually attract (& potentially mislead) the Gadgeteers...

    (Congrats on your new business! :)

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  7. is it LAPTOP free? or just WIFI free? thats an important distinction.

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