Reading a history of the English Coffeehouse reveals striking parallels between its rise and impacts in the 17th and 18th centuries and 21st century social media. They remind us that social media enables, helping give voice to our humanity, expanding and extending our ideas and our selves, connecting and communicating with one another in ways simple and profound, even creating new industries, social organizations and economies.
Most important, the parallels teach us that many of us have asked the wrong question about social media analysis. It is not “Which social media are consumers using, when and what are they doing?” but rather, “How are people expressing their fundamental human nature through social media?”
Now … onto the parallels
Substitute “social media” for “coffee,” update the years and industries, and rewrite the bullets in your mind. Your re-written bullets would easily be mistaken for many of today’s insights into social media.
- The London of the 17th and 18th century was home to an eclectic and thriving coffee drinking scene. The London coffeehouse was a haven for caffeine-fueled debate and innovation which helped to shape the modern world.
- Former Scottish spy then travel writer John Mackey “marvelled at how strangers, whatever their social background or political allegiances, were always welcomed into lively convivial company.
Coffee kindled conversations, fired debates, sparked ideas and, as Pasqua himself pointed out in his handbill The Virtue of the Coffee Drink (1652), made one “fit for business.”
Until the mid-seventeenth century, most people in England were always slightly — or very — drunk. The arrival of coffee triggered a dawn of sobriety that laid the foundations for truly spectacular economic growth in the decades that followed as people thought clearly for the first time. The stock exchange, insurance industry, and auctioneering: all burst into life in 17th-century coffeehouses — spawning the credit, security, and markets that facilitated the dramatic expansion of Britain’s network of global trade in Asia, Africa and America.
The character of a coffeehouse was influenced by its location within the hotchpotch of villages, cities, squares, and suburbs that comprised eighteenth-century London, which in turn determined the type of person you’d meet inside. “Some coffee-houses are a resort for learned scholars and for wits,” wrote César de Saussure, “others are the resort of dandies or of politicians, or again of professional newsmongers; and many others are temples of Venus.”
Early coffeehouses all followed the same blueprint, maximizing the interaction between customers and forging a creative, convivial environment.
- Much of the conversation centred upon news: There’s nothing done in all the world/From Monarch to the Mouse/But every day or night ‘tis hurled/Into the Coffee-House.
- Unexpectedly wide-ranging discussions could be twined from a single conversational thread as when, at John’s coffeehouse in 1715, news about the execution of a rebel Jacobite Lord (as recorded by Dudley Ryder) transmogrified into a discourse on “the ease of death by beheading” with one participant telling of an experiment he’d conducted slicing a viper in two and watching in amazement as both ends slithered off in different directions. Was this, as some of the company conjectured, proof of the existence of two consciousnesses?
- Compelling evidence suggests that far from co-existing in perfect harmony on the fireside bench, people in coffeehouses sat in relentless judgement of one another.
Also of interest. The coffee and coffeehouse are like iTunes and iPod – a software and hardware solution designed to enhance people’s lives.
Technologies change, but human nature remains constant.