There was a link to this article in Evan Williams blog. It takes a look at the social, political, and scientific networking which was commonly done in coffeehouses, and compares that interaction with what currently happens through the Internet. I had heard plenty about the use of coffeehouses as seats of political revolution, but I hadn’t heard of their use in scientific circles till I read this. There is a lot of parallelism between the role that coffeehouses provided and the role that weblogs and websites serve today, but I think that online interaction serves a role much less important than it could. If we take a look at the strong communities that did grow around coffeehouses, and around some strong scientific networking figures like Paul Erdos, the effects of the Internet seem much more subdued. The Internet has done great in terms of facilitating exchange of information, and it certainly has allowed for the formation of community where there wasn’t the critical mass before. It has allowed for great advances, I just think it should be going further.
I think the issue could be that the standard coffee-house gathering style, when available, is just more appealing than online interaction. When online communities grow they don’t always connect with the real world equivalents. To use a recent example, the Weblogger Meetup here in the Bay Area is quite poorly attended. I emailed a bunch of people and we had a decent turnout last month. But previous months it’s been quite dead. There are a lot of bloggers in the Bay Area, why are the meetups so poorly attended? I think one reason is that people in the area already have an outlet for their geekiness. Meetup offers people a way to use the internet to form real world social connections. But in the Bay Area people already have those social connections in place. They don’t need to go online to find a place to geek out over networking protocols and obscure copyright laws and regulations. At least some of their friends are already deep enough into those topics that they can get their fill during normal interaction.
It’s primarily in places where the real world network is thin that supplementing it with online gathering tools is really necessary. And I don’t mean that this only happens in places where there are few people overall. The geeky meetups in New York might be very well attended. But I think that boils down to the same reason. The social network surrounding high tech topics can be quite thin. Which is quite different than here in San Francisco, where you can hardly walk a block without hearing someone talking about how to schedule DNS zone transfers or arguing over the decision to use qmail. I think that people have such a fill of geek topics during the average day that they don’t seek out online community unless they’re really extreme cases. I think the same kind of thing probably happens in other areas with other concentrations as well (Hollywood and movies, Detroit and automobiles, Manhattan and finance, etc.) The Internet does a great job of creating communities, but they’re still restricted communities. The online versions don’t commonly attract interest from the real world nexus participants. This frequently leaves online communities as rather weak appendages when compared to the overall body of knowledge and social networks.