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Feast Your Eyes: The Coffeehouse App

Eighteenth-century coffeehouses were a hotbed of debate and entrepreneurial ideas. This illustrated app pitch aims to recreate that vibe today.

Talking with Sean Bonner about his new Coffee Common project reminded me of this recent illustrated proposal for a new app, called Coffeehouse Commons.

The pitch goes like this:

In the eighteenth-century English-speaking world, coffee houses were "the chief organs through which the public opinion of the metropolis vented itself," according to historian T. B. Macauley. In addition to supplying an exotic stimulant—caffeine—coffee houses formed the central nodes in urban information networks. They were among the first public gathering spaces where news, ideas, and goods could be debated, produced, and exchanged. [...]

For the past decade, with the advent of Wi-Fi, the explosion of blogs and online news forums, and traditional media’s increasing reliance on freelancers, independent coffee shops have again become places where ideas are generated, news is consumed, and comment is free.


Despite the similar range of intellectual activity, the atmosphere is a little different in today's coffeehouses.

Gesticulating men in wigs passing pamphlets hand-to-hand have been replaced by Mac-dependent hipsters with bad posture and permanently attached headphones. Today’s coffee shop exchanges take place online, invisible to the other occupants of the physical space in which they are produced. Meanwhile, several coffee shop owners have declared war on their freelancing clientele, complaining that they hog tables, make a single coffee last for hours and create an anti-social, library-like atmosphere.


But wait! What if there was an app that tracked all that invisible opinion, exchange, and cultural production, and somehow transformed it into a visible, connected whole?
Using the “Coffeehouse Commons”™ web or mobile interface, journalists and bloggers can check in to submit links to their content, while readers and commenters also log in to provide URLs for their in-house activity. The app's home page provides a constantly updated timeline of activity across all coffee shops, but by checking into a particular coffee shop, users can explore the range of information and ideas that were produced, discussed, and consumed within that space.

What do you think? Would this app help recreate the sort of dialogue and cross-pollination that made 18th-century coffeehouses into such powerful social, political, media, and business incubators? And, more importantly, would you download it if it really existed?

Original illustrations by Nikki Hiatt; pitch originally published in the New City Reader Food Issue.

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