Lots of coffee houses have gotten aboard the WiFi bandwagon: when it’s offered freely it’s a proven draw, and a valuable benefit for coffee-shop customers. But does it have a negative impact on the community aspect of the coffee house? Seattle’s Victrola thinks so:

Strongin said that the five-year-old cafe 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.

There’s really two issues here. One is the obvious question of whether some number of customers are abusing a free service. The other, and arguably more thorny issue, is whether WiFi promotes solitary, insulating activity in a public space that’s better suited to building community.

PostScript: See also, Tonx on the brouhaha. And Slashdot.

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