Not As Simple As Subtracting The iPhones

I was really interested to read how a coffee house in NYC was using conversational prompts in an effort to get customers talking with each other. It seemed quite similar to the program a Brazilian bus company created to get people on their buses chatting with each other and inspired me to try something similar at my performing arts center.

It was only when I read the story a little closer that I realized the reason the prompts exist is part of a philosophy which also involves keeping the Wifi off until 5 pm. Turning the Wifi off helps the coffee house serve more customers because fewer people are camping out at the tables all day, but it is also about creating a communal space.

“We truly believe that coffee shops were created for people to engage with one another, and meet new people, and be community hubs,” says Birch Coffee co-founder Jeremy Lyman. “When everybody has their face in their laptop, that can’t happen. We’re trying to create a way for people to be a little more vulnerable.”

Initially I thought to write something about how every time I encounter another anecdote about personal electronic devices causing people to disengage from normal interactions, it offsets arguments about the benefits of allowing their use. Sure they may tell their friends about their experience or research upcoming shows, but is short term economic benefit worth the erosion of social interactions?

But as I re-read the quote above about coffee houses being community hubs where people engage with and meet new people, it occurred to me that this is often the same language arts and cultural organizations use when touting their benefits. This made me question, if the primary format being offered is sitting quietly in a dark room, is there a lot going on that is staving off the erosion of social interactions?

Sure, the fact people have come out and are in physical proximity with strangers rather than at home watching Netflix is fast approaching the point where it will be considered a major victory. Is it really raising the bar and setting a new standard for enabling community involvement and interaction? Subtracting iPhones doesn’t automatically increase a participant’s engagement in an event.

Granted, the primary purpose of a cultural organization is not to stimulate social interactions. Then again, nor is it the primary goal of coffee shops. If it is a value you embrace or claim to bring, it needs to part of the planning.

Recent studies have started to suggest that the term “creative expression” is viewed more favorably than “arts” so arts groups may need to offer more opportunities for interaction and creativity. This is not to say that current practices needs to be abandoned. Rather alternatives will need to be provided if group are going to claim they are a community resource and bemoan the decline of social interactions.

One example that pops to mind (or more accurately, my salivary glands) is the Bach, Bacon and Biscuit event in Chattanooga that Holly Mulcahy recently wrote about.

Think about it-

-Free samples of a new biscuit?
-With BACON!?
-Free Concerto Concert?
-With BACH-ON?

What’s not to like? f that isn’t a recipe for bringing people together and getting them to interact…

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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