Saturday, March 07, 2009
Whither the Coffee House?
Saul Kaplan has set up an online book club on innovation. The first book we are reading and discussing is Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air," which describes the coffee house culture of England and the U.S. in the late 1700's. Here are some of my thoughts about these places that were so crucial to innovation in that era.
Think about the coffee house - people flowing in and out with the frequent running into others and the chance to exchange and cross-fertilize one's latest spontaneous thinking, places for twosies to sit down and move the sparks that have been created into action, and groups coalescing around trending topics so larger stuff can emerge.
But the impact of traditional coffee house innovation is limited by class and geography. Little headway was made on issues such as poverty because no poor people ever made it in the door (except as unseen help). Social media is just now providing examples of how the web can overcome some of the coffee house limitations. One of the delights of Twitter is that you can create a coffee house peopled by quite diverse individuals from all over the world (I follow people from many countries and political persuasions) and, because you are overhearing all their comments and conversations, you can often find some opportunity to strike up a conversation and start to build a relationship with people you would never run into in this way in your ordinary life.
The difficulty, though, is reconceptualizing the physical place - a coffee house - as a set of innovation flows. Once you have a great provocative conversation with one or two people on Twitter, how and where do you move it so the energy and innovation continues to flow into action? I've now had a number of instances where the Twitter banter flowed into Skype calls/chats/document exchanges and then into face-to-face meetings or directly into some collaborative arrangement. The next missing piece is more support for small collaborations online. How do we keep track of all the small projects and what we are supposed to do for each?s