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The Economist recently ran a fascinating essay arguing that the coffee houses of the 17th and 18th centuries served many of the same purposes, and suffered some of the same problems, as the modern day internet. They write:

“The coffee-houses that sprang up across Europe, starting around 1650, functioned as information exchanges for writers, politicians, businessmen and scientists. Like todays websites, weblogs and discussion boards, coffee-houses were lively and often unreliable sources of information that typically specialised in a particular topic or political viewpoint. They were outlets for a stream of newsletters, pamphlets, advertising free-sheets and broadsides. Depending on the interests of their customers, some coffee-houses displayed commodity prices, share prices and shipping lists, whereas others provided foreign newsletters filled with coffee-house gossip from abroad.”

Many recent writers, who worry about the decline of the public sphere, hold these coffee houses up as the ideal of participatory democracy – though as this article reminds us they were also hotbeds of gossip and anti-social sentiments.

Interestingly, I stumbled onto this article the same day I read a Boston Globe story bemoaning the lack of civility in civic minded discussion lists and chat rooms. Same old, same old, except that the primary critic here is Howard Rheingold, the person who coined the phrase, virtual community, and who has recently celebrated the smart mobs phenomenon. Howard is someone who can always be counted on to offer the affirmative case for technological change but the Globe writes:

“In the nascent days of the Internet, many thought the technology would be a boon to democracy, offering a stump for people to espouse views on politics and social issues, and debate freely even if they couldn’t attend city council meetings, said Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. In practice, though, many use these unofficial community e-mail groups and message boards as a place to launchattacks, he said. Often, the caustic comments are posted with pseudonyms or incomplete names, as writers cloak themselves in the anonymity provided by the computer medium. These forums typically are moderated by residents, but often have a link on a municipalitys official website. These vitriolic voices contribute little to public discourse and can chill online discussion with a few nasty words, Rheingold said. Moreover, unfounded accusations that can sully reputations have the potential to become libelous.”

What happened, Howard? Wake up on the wrong side of bed?

Here’s The Economist Again:

“Dark rumours of plots and counter-plots swirled in London’s coffee-houses, but they were also centres of informed political debate. Swift remarked that he was not yet convinced that any Access to men in Power gives a man more Truth or Light than the Politicks of a Coffee House. Miles’s coffee-house was the meeting-place of a discussion group, founded in 1659 and known as the Amateur Parliament. Pepys observed that its debates were ‘the most ingeniose, and smart, that I ever heard, or expect to heare, and bandied with great eagernesse; the arguments in the Parliament howse were but flatte to it.’ After debates, he noted, the group would hold a vote using a wooden oracle, or ballot-boxa novelty at the time.”

Crankiness sounds a lot cooler when you call it dark rumours and quotations from Swift and Pepys can make any fan community sound so much more dignified, but at the end of the day, we are talking about the samE trade-offs.

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