The distractions of social media, 1673 style

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Update June 2013: I wrote an Op-Ed on this topic for the New York Times, which draws modern lessons from the 17th-century concerns about the distractions of coffeehouses.

Here’s an extract from my forthcoming book (to be published in October 2013) on the prehistory of social media, from the Roman period to the present day. (A previous extract, about Martin Luther and social media, is here.) You know how you can easily lose track of time while checking Twitter and Facebook? And how people worry that social media is distracting people from doing real work (aka “social notworking”)? The same thing happened in the 17th century with coffeehouses, a new social-media platform where people went to read and discuss the news:

With the promise of a constant and unpredictable stream of news, messages and gossip, coffeehouses offered an exciting and novel platform for sharing information. So seductive was this new social environment — you never knew what you might learn on your next visit, or who you might meet — that coffeehouse denizens found themselves whiling away hours in reading and discussion, oblivious to the passage of time. “Thence to the coffeehouse” appears frequently in the celebrated diary of Samuel Pepys, an English public official. His entry for January 11th, 1664 gives a flavour of the cosmopolitan, serendipitous atmosphere that prevailed within the coffeehouses of the period, where matters both trivial and profound were discussed:

Thence to the Coffee-house, whither comes Sir W. Petty and Captain Grant, and we fell in talke (besides a young gentleman, I suppose a merchant, his name Mr Hill, that has travelled and I perceive is a master in most sorts of musique and other things) of musique; the universal character; art of memory… and other most excellent discourses to my great content, having not been in so good company a great while, and had I time I should covet the acquaintance of that Mr Hill… The general talke of the towne still is of Collonell Turner, about the robbery; who, it is thought, will be hanged.

Enthusiasm for coffeehouses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented that coffeehouses were distracting people who ought to be doing useful work, rather than networking and sharing trivia with their acquaintances.

When coffee became popular in Oxford and the coffeehouses selling it began to multiply, the university authorities objected, fearing that coffeehouses were promoting idleness and diverting students from their studies. Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian, was among those who denounced the enthusiasm for the new drink. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university?” he asked. “Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time.” Similar concerns were voiced in Cambridge, where one observer noted that

it is become a custom after chapel to repair to one or other of the coffee houses (for there are divers), where hours are spent in talking, and less profitable reading of newspapers, of which swarms are continually supplied from London. And the scholars are so greedy after news (which is none of their business) that they neglect all for it, and it is become very rare for any of them to go directly to his chamber after prayers without first doing his suit at the coffee-house, which is a vast loss of time grown out of a pure novelty. For who can apply close to a subject with his head full of the din of a coffee-house?

Inevitably, the opposition to coffeehouses found expression in pamphlet form. The author of “The Grand Concern of England Explained” (1673) grumbled that coffeehouses had

done great mischiefs to the nation, and undone many of the King’s subjects: for they, being great enemies to diligence and industry, have been the ruin of many serious and hopeful young gentlemen and tradesmen, who, before frequenting these places, were diligent students or shopkeepers, extraordinary husbands of their time as well as money; but since these houses have been set up, under pretence of good husbandry, to avoid spending above one penny or two-pence at a time, have gone to these coffee-houses; where, meeting friends, they have sat talking three or four hours; after which, a fresh acquaintance appearing, and so one after another all day long, hath begotten fresh discourse, so that frequently they have staid five or six hours together in one of them; all which time their studies or shops have been neglected.

The coffeehouse bore, the know-it-all political commentator and the businessman spreading false rumours are all stock figures in the satire of the period. Another pamphlet, “The character of a coffee-house” (1673) mocks the coffeehouse as “an exchange, where haberdashers of political small-wares meet, and mutually abuse each other, and the publick, with bottomless stories, and headless notions; the rendezvous of idle pamphlets, and persons more idly employed to read them… The room stinks of tobacco worse than hell of brimstone, and is as full of smoke as their heads that frequent it.”

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19 comments
    • tomstandage said:

      Yes, good point! Though it now seems that the commonly held view that women were excluded from coffeehouses is wrong (see Pincus, “Coffee Politicians Does Create”)

  1. Lane said:

    And today, women are actually more eager social networkers than men by nearly every metric – status updates, photos, etc…

  2. Any discussion of coffee houses in the past would be incomplete without discussion the Ottoman Empire. The Sultans or rather the governing elite always shut down the coffee houses as potential places of unrest and the population of Constantinople always got really pissed off when it happened.

    • tomstandage said:

      Yes, I should stress that this is an excerpt from a chapter that explains the origins of coffee, and the coffeehouse, in the Arab world. Was the 1656 prohibition of coffeehouses in Constantinople actually effective, though? I haven’t been able to find a clear answer. The attempts to ban coffeehouses in Mecca in 1511 and 1524 and in Cairo in 1539 all failed, so I’m inclined to think the 1656 attempt did too.

  3. Can’t wait to read the new book. A friend recommended “6 Glasses” and i was hooked .. just finished “edible” and bought “victorian” for my kindle. Keep up the good work.

  4. Lynne Mason said:

    Hello – I’ll leave my question under Distractions of Social Media since I couldn’t find an Email Me here option anywhere on the site and my daughter and I really want to know something! Why the word “the” isn’t on the cover jacket of your History of the World in 6 Glasses book? May seem silly but we are curious! She’s writing her AP World History extra credit assignment on the book – recommended by her teacher – and we are now both hooked! :) Thank you and if you could respond back….that would be awesome. Also…I liked Send the Boats. Take care.

    • tomstandage said:

      Very good question. The answer is that the packet of tea in the original cover design for the book said “THE” (French for tea) on it. So we didn’t need the word “the”. But then, for some reason, some other packet of tea was swapped in which didn’t say “THE” on it. So the word “the” is actually missing from the title of the book. Well spotted!

  5. I think we can’t compare today’s social media like facebook or twitter with coffee houses of that time.

    The reason is that people in that era had to go to coffee houses to waste their time. That means if person can’t go to coffee house, she can’t waste a time while today’s social network is available on single click at anywhere. I’ll say today’s social network is more dangerous than the coffee houses.

    There is only one common thing between coffee houses and today’s social media. The government or authority could not stop the coffee houses then and government can’t stop the today’s social media also.

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