Blogs, Coffee Houses, and the Public Sphere

 
June 1 st 2002

According to NetLingo, the online dictionary about the Internet, a blog is "a Web site (or section of a Web site) where users can post a chronological, up-to-date e-journal entry of their thoughts. Each post usually contains a Web link. Basically, it is an open forum communication tool that, depending on the Web site, is either very individualistic or performs a crucial function for a company."

William Quick coined the term blogosphere to indicate "the intellectual cyberspace bloggers occupy."

The short reflections below all have bearing on the emerging place of blogs in the public sphere.


The Blogosphere as Coffee House
by Douglas Turnbull

There has been a lot written, both on blogs themselves and in the more mainstream media, about the blogging phenomenon. For the most part, the writings have centred on blogging's relationship to existing print media and punditry, which is understandable considering the many similarities. However, I'd like to suggest a different comparison—I think blogging is the modern day equivalent to the old Viennese coffee houses of the early twentieth century.

Those coffee houses served as the centre for public intellectual discourse. Writers, thinkers, and other intellectuals would gather there, where they would read the papers (all the coffee houses would have subscriptions to all the papers) and discuss the issues of the day. Similarly, here on the Internet, bloggers surf the papers, linking interesting articles and posting thoughts about them. E-mail and comments sections render the medium interactive, as well.

While the coffee house culture focused more on art and literature than on politics, the Viennese papers would run significant sections of original literary works and essays. A prominent fuellitonist could become a celebrity in the city—that is a difference in the times—politics are more central to our existence now, and in their self-destructive pursuit of avant-garde status, music and art have rendered themselves irrelevant to most people's lives. And blogs are not solely about politics—you can equally find discussions of the classics, economics, history, religion, cognitive science, drug research, and probably any other topic you can think of.

Different coffee houses would serve different clienteles and would thus have their own specializations. One might be known as the bohemian haunt, another for dramatists and poets, a third for philosophers, a fourth for politicians and writers. Similarly, the blogosphere has organized, or at least is in the process of organizing, itself into nodes, which each cater to a particular interest.

Blogging has restored the public intellectual sphere that has been lost for most in America. (As was shown by the general irrelevance and obscurity of most of those cited in the recent book about public intellectuals.) It provides the chance for thinkers from all over the country to gather together and exchange thoughts, bounce ideas off each other, and to find out what others are thinking. The Viennese coffee houses served the same cultural function—blogging is this same phenomenon writ large.

Both served a relatively small population of self-described elites, but through the quality of minds present and the cross fertilization of ideas nurtured by it, the blogosphere can have an influence out of proportion to its number of readers. But even if it has no effect on society at large, the blogosphere still provides an intellectual home for its denizens, a place to go to hear the latest political developments and to find out what's going on in the world, in the largest sense. Just as the coffee houses did—they existed and flourished not because of any product they produced or power they had but because they provided a benefit to those who frequented them. I don't know if blogging will ever make anyone any money, but I think it will still survive, because people like it. They like doing it, and there is value in it for the participants.

Originally posted here.


The Blogosphere: The New Global Coffee House
By John Hiler

Thinking about the blogosphere as a biological ecosystem helped me gain a deeper understanding of how it works. But why is this so important?

When I tried to answer that question, the biological ecosystem metaphor didn't seem to help. Just as I was looking for the metaphor to answer that question, I had the chance to interview Glenn Reynolds for this article.

Glenn is a published author and a law school professor, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that his take focuses on the intellectual impact of weblogs. As he explained, "What I see in the Blogosphere is very much like the network of European coffee houses in the eighteenth century."

The more I thought about it, the more I liked that. In many ways, the blogosphere has become the default forum for intellectual discourse, a sort of intercontinental coffee house buzzing with discussion and debate.

It's a powerful metaphor. These European coffee houses were the celebrated "third place" (besides work and home) where intellectuals could read the free newspapers and debate the important issues of the day. According to Glenn, these coffee houses were the birthplace of a whole new set of ideas that fuelled the next generation of thinkers, artists, and business people.

Hmm . . . sound familiar?

When you compare the blogosphere to European coffee houses, we have a couple of big advantages.

For starters, you don't have to be European to participate. The blogosphere is increasingly global, and as more and more countries come online it will become even more so. Even language barriers are starting to come down, due to tools like Google's translator.

Also, bloggers don't have to travel to find the nearest coffee house. Just log onto the web and you're in the blogosphere. Geography has become irrelevant.

Finally, the blogosphere is free—both for bloggers and for readers. For less than a price of a cup of coffee, you can take part in the global conversation with some of the smartest and most informed people on the planet.

What are you waiting for?

Originally posted here.


. . . Blogging Can More Usefully Be Compared to a Coffee House
By A. K. M. Adam

Margaret reminds me that blogging can more usefully be compared to a coffee house, where Tom and Halley hang out, with rickety seats you can pull over to listen as Mike Golby cuts loose with another spellbinding saga (in what sense could any sensate reader think of this as a rival to "journalism"?) or Steve Himmer falls into a lovely theoretical discussion with Mark Woods and Jeff Ward. Or you can lean over close to Jeneane and listen to her reflect on Helene Cixous, family, and poetry. Or wander over to Burningbird and ask her about networking and weblog client-server software. And everyone argues about politics. And when one of the local celebrities drops in, some internationally known web visionary or another, Doc and Chris and David turn out to be regular people (surprise, surprise!). Okay, Chris isn't exactly just "regular people," but we like him that way. And there are so many more folks who wander through; this is just the corner of the cafe where I usually sit.

Would I stop listening to NPR just because I have the privilege of listening to such a fascinating array of voices? Reporters need have no such worry. Commentators, pundits, columnists, however, take note: when the conviviality at Cafe Express (just down Hinman from St. Luke's; tell them that priest who comes in on Sundays sent you) is more interesting than what you're paid to propound, you may find your editors cruising the coffee houses for fresh voices.

Originally posted here.


Habermas, the Coffee Houses, and the Public Sphere
By Markman Ellis

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas argues that England, in the eighteenth century, saw the emergence of a new "public sphere . . . which mediates between society and state, in which the public organizes itself as the bearer of public opinion." The greatest contribution to the development of the public sphere was the emergence of its institutional base, the organizational structures that allowed these "webs of social development" to exist. It links the growth of an urban culture (metropolitan, provincial, imperial), as the new arena of public life (theatres, museums, opera houses, meeting rooms, coffee houses), to a new infrastructure for social communication (the press, publishing ventures, circulating libraries, improved transportation (canals, carriages), increasing reading public, and centres of sociability like coffee houses and taverns), and the new philanthropic movement of voluntary association. As Craig Calhoun argues, the model allows of print culture and architecture as well as organizations: but the prime example is the coffee house, and stresses how "the conversation of these little circles branched out into affairs of state administration and politics."

In these circles or webs, there were several crucial features, Habermas argues: "a kind of social intercourse that, far from presupposing equality of status, disregarded status altogether." There was also a general trust in discursivity and reason. And the emerging public web was established as inclusive by principle: anyone with access to cultural technology like novels, journals, plays, had the potential to claim the attention of the "culture-debating public": "However exclusive the public might be in any given instance, it could never close itself off entirely and become consolidated as a clique; for it always understood and found itself immersed within a more inclusive public of private people, persons who—insofar as they were propertied and educated—as readers, listeners, and spectators could avail themselves via the market of the objects that were subject to discussion."

Originally posted here.


Recommended Reading

Ray Oldenburg. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Marlowe

Harold B. Segel, ed. The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, 1890-1938 (Purdue University Press, 1993).

Essays and sketches by eight coffee house haunters in Vienna at the turn of the century.

Jurgen Habermas. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (MIT Press, Reprint edition 1991).

Craig Calhoun, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere (MIT Press, 1992).