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The restoration of the coffeehouse

How a centuries-old institution can save today’s faltering social media culture.

By Jeremy Cliffe

All is not well in the land of social media. Many of the digital giants that rose to previously unthinkable peaks of power and wealth over recent decades are struggling. Their basic business model – harvesting data about their users and selling targeted access to them to advertisers – is in trouble. The digital advertising market is stalling. And networks built to serve that market through the algorithmic maximisation of user engagement, often exploiting ­emotions such as rage, fear and envy in the process, have come under greater scrutiny from users and regulators in the so-called techlash.

Facebook has been accused of making products that “stoke division and weaken our democracy” in the words of Frances Haugen, a former employee turned whistleblower. Its CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s big bet on the Metaverse, an immersive form of virtual-reality social networking, has seen his company lose 70 per cent of its stock market value in 2022. Meanwhile Twitter, under the new ownership of Elon Musk, is in crisis. Staff, advertisers and some users have abandoned the platform amid the chaos of Musk’s takeover. “He’s not building a community at Twitter,” wrote the American author Seth Abramson on 29 November after he quit the site, “but a hellscape in which people of good faith must daily fight off the moral dregs of society.”

Smaller competitors are gaining ground, notably the decentralised social network Mastodon and the American site Post – which sells itself as “a civil place to debate ideas” – as well as various other platforms with robotic-sounding names such as Tribel, Plurk or Amino. Everything about discursive social media is suddenly open to question. What sort of news and discussion should it host and encourage? What should be its attitude to participation, networking, user rights and free speech? What should be its business model? What societal role should it seek to play? What, ultimately, is it for?

[See also: Can Newsnight recapture its lost glory?]

A credible preliminary answer to that last question is that social media should be the digital form of the “public sphere”. This idea was first theorised by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which defined the öffentlichkeit (the public sphere) as “society engaged in critical public debate”. He argued that the history of the public sphere in the West is deeply rooted in one particular tradition: that of the European coffeehouse. The coffeehouse of old was also a space for news, discussion and encounter. It was in many ways the original social network. And its history points a way forward for a global social media industry now at a crossroads.

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Coffeehouses had existed for centuries in the Muslim Ottoman realms before they spread to Christian Europe in the mid 17th century. They were introduced by merchants and migrants with links between the two worlds. The first was established on St Mark’s Square in Venice in 1647. Five years later Pasqua Rosée, a Greek, set up London’s first coffeehouse in St Michael’s Alley in the City of London. Armenians played decisive roles in establishing the first cafés in Paris (at the St Germain fair in 1671) and Vienna (a spy in the post-siege Habsburg capital set up its first kaffeehaus in 1685). Organised around the consumption of a stimulant, these places contrasted with the raucous intoxication associated with taverns. Coffeehouses soon emerged as centres of exchange, information and debate.

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The coffeehouse enjoyed three heydays. The first came in the early imperial Britain of the 17th and 18th centuries, when it dominated the civic life of cities such as London until coffee was eclipsed by tea and gin in the mid 18th century. The second came with the magnificent kaffeehäuser of continental Europe – Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And the third heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s, when new Italian espresso machines, mass consumer culture and the rise of universities combined to revive the institution from Soho to the Sorbonne and San Francisco.

Literary appreciations of the coffeehouse span its history. The diarist Samuel Pepys described obtaining “great pleasure” in this space’s “diversity of company and discourse”. In his elegiac 1942 memoir, The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig wrote nostalgically about the coffeehouse of Habsburg Vienna as “actually a sort of democratic club… where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals”.

The Franco-American writer George Steiner, who settled in Cambridge, England, found Europe’s cosmopolitan essence amid the marble-topped tables and steaming coffee machines. He wrote in 2004 that Europe is “made up of coffeehouses, of cafés… The café is a place for assignation and conspiracy, for intellectual debate and gossip, for the flâneur and the poet or metaphysician at his notebook.”

Coffee culture continues to thrive today in everything from mass café chains to artisanal boutiques. But the coffeehouse tradition lives on in its original form only in certain corners. One can still experience something of the atmosphere of the kaffeehaus of Zweig’s memory at Viennese institutions such as Café Landtmann or Café Central, or Caffè Tommaseo in Trieste, Italy, or the New York Café in Budapest.

[See also: Inside the Twittering machine]

Elsewhere the tradition of the intellectual-artistic coffeehouse lives in the Gran Café de Gijón in Madrid, with its tertulias (literary discussion groups), the bohemian Café Hawelka in Vienna or the Beat-era Vesuvio Café in San Francisco. Nor is the radical café something of the past. The Théâtre de l’Étoile du Nord in Tunis, Tunisia, is an important gathering point for the country’s post-Arab Spring democracy movement. In Kyiv, the Bar Baraban (now sadly closed) fulfilled a similar function for the Maidan protests of 2013-14; anarchist cafés such as K*Vox in Athens or Kafé 44 in Stockholm are homes to alternative culture.

To compare the coffeehouse tradition to the social media networks of today may seem far-fetched. But consider the parallels. Across its various manifestations, the coffeehouse typically fused news and debate in one space. People would go there to find out what was going on, discuss and take a view on it.

Coffeehouses specialised in certain fields of interest or trade: lawyers, printers, merchants and insurers all had their favoured locales in 18th-century London. Some even developed into private exchanges and clubs; the London Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s of London both began as coffeehouses. But most were fundamentally open and democratic, albeit male-centric, allowing in any man who could pay the price of a coffee. These institutions generated their own formats and cultural peculiarities: pamphlets, newspapers, journals, stock indexes, news-letters and aphorisms.

The American and French revolutions had roots in coffeehouses: the former at the Merchants’ Coffee House in New York, where resentments at British rule swirled in the years running up to 1775; the latter at the Café de Foy in Paris, where the revolutionary lawyer Camille Desmoulins fired up the patrons to march on the Bastille in 1789.

Debates raged about the merits and demerits of coffeehouses. Their fans argued that they sharpened wits, stimulated debate and democratised information. Critics deemed them time-wasting, seditious, boastful, unmanly, mob-minded and intellectually unserious. The satirist Jonathan Swift warned against mistaking “the echo of a London coffeehouse for the voice of the kingdom”.

Illustration by Cold War Steve

Much of this applies to social media today. Twitter, with its slogan “It’s what’s happening”, markets itself as a space where news is not just shared, but also discussed and made. It plays host to both dense clusters of specialist interest and a remarkable openness whereby anyone can engage directly with anyone else. It has generated new forms of expression: threads, hashtags, the short viral video clip, “moments” and memes (the aphorisms of our time). Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have helped campaigners and revolutionaries spread their messages to others – from the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ongoing Iranian protests today.

Debates rage over the role of social media networks, just as they once did over that of the coffeehouse. They stand accused of stoking precisely the same social ills. Consider “The Character of Coffee and Coffeehouses”, written by an Anabaptist bookseller, John Starkey, in London in 1661. His pamphlet can be read today as both an account of its time and as an uncannily apt commentary on Twitter and the like today.

Starkey complained of “diverse monstrous opinions and absurdities” and “strange and wild conceits” in a setting where there were “neither moderators, nor rules” and where “infinite are the contests, irreconcilable the differences”. Even high-brow participants were cheapened by association with this new institution, he wrote: “The divinest truths, become as common… as stones.” And yet, many coffeehouse regulars of the time responded forcefully to these complaints – just as social media users today are willing to credit their chosen platforms with the democratisation of wits, exchange, information and debate.

What makes a good coffeehouse? What is the caffeinated equivalent of George Orwell’s imagined ideal pub, The Moon Under Water? Let us call this, in honour of one of its acolytes, the Café Steiner.

Café Steiner is a retreat from the street and its harsh sights and noises, a babble of voices at once lively and not too loud to interrupt one’s reading or thinking. Some patrons are chatting, others are absorbed in their work like Jakob Mendel, a Viennese character described by Zweig, amid his books and periodicals at the Café Gluck, “his spectacled eyes fixed upon the printed page… rocking his shiny bald pate backwards and forwards and humming to himself as he read”.

The day’s domestic and international newspapers are there and free to read, mounted on rods for ease. Its rooms exist in a soft twilight, “dusky, comfortable, and warm”, as the diarist James Boswell put it in 1762 of Child’s Coffee House near St Paul’s in London. There, as the French historian Hippolyte Taine wrote of the Café Florian in Venice in 1850, “one muses with half-closed eyes over the imagery of the day”.

At your table in the Café Steiner you are simultaneously alone and in company. “If he tired of what he was writing he could strike up a conversation, if he tired of the conversation he could retreat into his thoughts,” writes Keiron Pim in Endless Flight, a new biography of Joseph Roth, the Austrian writer, journalist and lifelong coffeehouse devotee. Some other patrons may cluster according to their jobs and interests, but the clientele is a broad social mix defined by more than its professions. As the Austrian journalist Alfred Polgar put it in his 1926 Theory of the Café Central, it “represents something of an organisation of the disorganised… each halfway indeterminate individual is credited with a personality”.

At the centre of the main room is a large table, as there used to be in the London coffeehouses, at which patrons can simply take the first available seat and talk with whomever occupies the one adjacent; serendipitous encounters keep the social life of the Café Steiner fluid and open.

The Café Steiner is therefore a haven of free and open discourse, true to the ideal of the public sphere; subordinate neither to the power of the state nor that of the market. Perhaps it is operated as a not-for-profit civic institution, or is co-owned by its regulars, or perhaps it makes a profit from the sale of its coffee. In any case, its financial viability depends on its attractiveness to its patrons, not on manipulating or exploiting the discourse it hosts. They can say or write anything they want, up to the point where it fundamentally jeopardises the civility of the establishment or threatens directly to harm other patrons.

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Café Steiner thus takes its inspiration from the 1670s London coffeehouse proprietor Paul Greenwood, who set out his “rules and orders” in a poem. He wrote: “First, gentry, tradesmen, all are welcome hither/And may without affront sit down together,” but added, “He that shall any quarrel here begin/Shall give each man a dish t’atone the sin.”

Abuse, profanity, gambling and wagers beyond five shillings (“which oft-times much trouble breed”) were proscribed. As Markman Ellis writes in The Coffee House: A Cultural History, Greenwood’s argument was essentially that the very openness and egalitarianism of the coffeehouse necessitated those basic standards of behaviour.

As with so much about the physical coffeehouse, this vision of its ideal form can be transposed to its digital counterpart: the social media network. The digital Café Steiner, an improved and happier future version of Twitter or Facebook, or a successful competitor (or even successor) to those sites, would likewise offer its patrons a pleasant atmosphere, neither dull nor cacophonous, but convivial.

The online manifestation of the Café Steiner’s amenable levels of noise and light might be user-controlled, enabling them to choose how much they see and at what pace. Spaces would exist where users could plunge into news and robust debate, and others where they can lean back and consume longer-form content. The site would allow them to be alone and in company; its algorithms would not constantly prod them to engage more, rile themselves up and keep frenetically clicking.

The ideal digital coffeehouse would likewise allow for clusters of interest and profession, gathered perhaps around certain servers or sub-discussions as around a real coffeehouse table. But it would also make room for serendipitous encounters with new individuals, ideas and perspectives. It would, in other words, avoid being an “echo chamber” of pre-existing views.

There might be, for example, a function equivalent to the large communal table in the old London coffeehouse, where a user is paired with another who may have different outlooks. (Something like this already exists in the “My Country Talks” digital initiative, which aims to break down barriers by connecting up individuals with different views for conversations.)

This digital Café Steiner would also be resolutely open and independent. It might be a not-for-profit institution of the “digital commons” (the most prominent existing example of which is Wikipedia) or perhaps it would request a small financial contribution from its users, the digital equivalent of buying a cup of coffee.

It would under no circumstances make money from interfering with the discourse it hosts by pushing users towards certain content, or exploiting the data they generate. It would remain true to the Habermasian vision of the public sphere as a discursive arena compromised neither by state control nor by the domination of market forces. Free speech would reign but, in the spirit of Greenwood in 17th-century London, it would be underwritten with transparent, common-sense rules ensuring that one user’s freedom of expression did not undermine that of others.

Yet all this – the dedication to a free and suitable space for news and discourse, the emphasis on independence, openness and civility – contains perhaps the biggest lesson the history of the coffeehouse can impart. The coffeehouses fundamentally served their customers because, whether in 18th-century London, 19th-century Paris, early-20th-century Vienna or elsewhere, theirs was a fiercely competitive market. Typically, the establishment of one coffeehouse was followed by many more nearby, all competing for an extremely mobile clientele. Some advertised the superior quality of their coffee, but this was secondary (the coffeehouse addict Pepys did not even like the taste of the drink) to the much more existential competition to offer the most convivial and lively environment for reading and discussion.

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That, more than any element of technology or social norm, is what most separates the coffeehouse tradition from the social media sites of today. In the former, the customers had the power. In the latter, the hosts have the power. They wield algorithmic control of the discursive ecosystem; hold vast data on their users and can manipulate behaviour; own the networks they host; and can accumulate such large networks that they can squeeze out putative rivals. “The history of progress is a history of better monopoly businesses replacing incumbents,” wrote Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire who was the first external investor in Facebook, and a man clearly not familiar with the role of coffeehouses in that history.

It does not have to be this way. Proposals abound for a more competitive social media market redistributing power from the owners to the users. On the radical end of the spectrum is the case for breaking up the big social networks; on the more minimal end is improving regulation to give users more control over their accounts and timelines.

Between those poles, however, there exists a seam of practical, substantive suggestions. Web3 – a decentralised form of the internet based on blockchain technology – offers the prospect of evolved social networks. More could be done to create a benign regulatory and commercial environment for not-for-profit, cooperative and citizen-led platforms that focus on news and debate.

In his recent book Exponential, Azeem Azhar, a technology writer, suggests a new framework for interoperability – whereby digital firms, on reaching a certain threshold of market share (he suggests 10 to 15 per cent), must allow users to transfer their profiles and data to other networks at the click of a button.

In the coffeehouse of old, customers who did not like the ambience or who felt exploited by the owner could stand up and walk out, down the street, to an alternative venue. In the digital coffeehouse of tomorrow, users must be able to do the same.

This article was originally published on 7 December 2022.

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special