Online in Public Space

by Anja Wolf

Studying at a cafe recently, I noticed that most of the people around me were sitting alone in front of computers. Others had come to meet and talk, but the majority were focused on their screens. It seems that computers, phones and other devices have not only influenced our concentration capacity but also our behavior in public. We often appreciate sitting in active places but remain absorbed in our digital worlds.

Digital devices have become what sociologist Erving Goffman called "involvement shields," which can discourage interaction with others in public. It's as if we're logged into Facebook with Chat turned off: we're able to see what's happening around us without being available for social exchange.

In response to online isolation, ambient social networking apps like Highlight and Sonar are making people more accessible in public. Unlike Foursquare, which focuses on places, these apps provide information about the people around us. You could be sitting in a cafe and receive updates when "someone interesting" is nearby. The Bump app allows users to exchange information by clicking their phones together, playing with the possibilities for chance encounters in the video below.

So the devices we hide behind in cafes could do the opposite, broadcasting information designed to increase spontaneous meetings with friends and even strangers. While this could be an unwanted distraction, it could also enrich the lives of those who choose to reduce the boundaries around their private sphere. After all, is it not the meetings we least expect that tend to be the most interesting?

Anja Wolf, originally from Sweden, studies landscape architecture at the College of Art in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Credits: Photos by Anja Wolf.

+ share


  1. this seriously rings true for me. i find it easier to concentrate on work at a cafe than at home. but i think these apps would threaten that. i love my friends and chance encounters but when i'm working at a cafe it's better that they stay away. these apps seem like an example of technologists trying to meet a need that isn't there. but maybe it's just me, because it seems that tons of people like to broadcast their location on facebook and foursquare.

  2. Very interesting analogy with Facebook chat off. It is like that, and it reminds me of how much virtual space is influencing perceptions of physical space. The other day I was walking down the street and thought to myself, this reminds me of Google street view. I'm not proud of that thought, but there it is.

  3. Speaking of online influence, I think sometimes people make decisions about how to spend time based on how it will look in Instagram and Facebook photos. So how we present ourselves online becomes a constant consideration, which adds a new dimension to Goffman's studies. That's also an important point you raise about how much of our private world we're willing to open up.

  4. This brought to mind the article "The Portable Home: The Domestication of Public Space" by Krishan Kumar and Ekaterina Makarova. From the abstract:

    "the private life of the home has been carried into the public sphere—what we call 'the domestication of public space.' This has led to a further attenuation of public life, especially as regards sociability. It has also increased the perception that what is required is a better 'balance' between public and private. We argue that this misconstrues the nature of the relation of public to private in those periods that attained the greatest degree of sociability, and that not 'balance' but 'reciprocity' is the desired condition."

  5. this is a very nice piece. enjoyed this and its very 'local' take on technologies and how social they can be. what the meaning of public space is - a place to hide out? be anonymous? unrecognized? alone? or with people, meeting people. great departure from Sadie Plant's 'On the Mobile' - early study of mobile phone use in nine cities - like 2000 or something.

  6. @petersigrist: Thanks for the interesting pointer to the article! A quote to juxtapose and consider against Kumar/Makarvoa's abstract in an unrelated book titled "'Quiet" by Susan Cain:

    "But the cafe worked as my office because it had specific attributes that are absent from many modern schools and workplaces. It was social, yet its casual, come-and-go-as-you-please nature left me free from unwelcome entanglements and able to 'deliberately practice' my writing. I could toggle back and forth between observer and social actor as much as I wanted. I could also control my environment. Each day I chose the location of my table -- in the center of the room or along the perimeter -- depending on whether I wanted to be seen as well as to see. And I had the option to leave whenever I wanted peace and quiet to edit what I'd written that day."

    1. That's a great quote, Min Li. I also really like working in cafes. For some reason I even get less tired and stay more focused in cafes than when I'm at home. I've even found this in open library rooms with shared tables, surprisingly, in comparison with individual desks hidden away in the stacks.

  7. I have to reinstall it. But "Once upon a time…" I had on my laptop a wiki… running on localhost, a local wiki. So people on the same network than me could access and edit.

    The main issue is a discoverability issue, but once this one is solved, once you can advertise the service through things like ZeroConf, etc. Then you can let the people interact with the wiki.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.