Throwback Thursday: Social Networking in the 1600s

Coffeehouses vs. Social Media

Social networks are constantly under attack for destroying productivity.  This infographic claims that the use of sites such as Twitter in the workplace is costing the American economy a massive $650 billion each year.

But this is not the first time such concerns have been expressed. In the 1600s, worries arose surrounding a new social, media-sharing environment: the coffeehouse.

Coffeehouses were just as evil as social media

England’s first coffeehouse opened in the 1650s, with hundreds following suit. Coffeehouses offered more than just a hot beverage; people would visit to read and discuss the latest news and there were even specialised coffeehouses for discussions on specific topics, eg politics or shipping.

However, not everyone approved. Opponents moaned that coffeehouses were a distraction from productive work. Sound familiar?

Just like social media, critics accused the novelty of the coffeehouse of taking over lives and killing productivity. However, coffeehouse advocators saw it very differently.

Samuel Pepys would have been a Twitter-holic

Samuel Pepys made countless references to “the coffeehouse” throughout his diary, depicting the lively conversations he enjoyed there. This may have been due to their lack of recognition of social distinctions, where patrons were encouraged to engage in conversations with strangers from different walks of life.

This also sounds similar to modern social networking. Conversations on Twitter, LinkedIn Groups or even TripAdvisor do not segment contributors by social class. The nature of this widely open platform is what provides the scope for otherwise unattainable opportunities and knowledge.

This notion of facilitating the mixing of new people and ideas is what made coffeehouses ‘crucibles of creativity’.

From coffeehouse to Lloyd's

Businessmen used them as meeting rooms from which to transact business. Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, popular amongst shipowners, captains and traders, became the famous insurance market Lloyd’s. Not quite the counterproductive enemy which the commentators had made out…

Although some bosses degrade the use of social media at work as “social notworking,” others embrace corporate versions to encourage collaboration, discover employees’ talents and reduce the use of e-mail. McKinsey (2012) found that the use of social networking within companies increased the productivity of “knowledge workers” by 20-25%.

The spirit of social media reflects that of the coffeehouses, which helps illustrate the potential for innovation and productivity, despite the negative commentary. It is therefore clear that, on the topic of dangers associated with new technologies, we can learn a lot from the past.

A final thought...

How many of you are reading this blog on your smartphone from your local coffeeshop?!

photo credit: NY Times