Monday, July 1, 2013

1600's London and Social Networking

By John Trimble

Tom Standage made some great observations in his recent New York Times article, Social Networking in the 1600s on how concern about the time suck of “social networking” is not new. In fact, in a very real sense it dates back hundreds of years.

He quotes $650 billion as a figure circulating today on what social networking; Facebook, Twitter, etc. could be costing the American economy each year. While that number is questionable at best and ridiculous at worst, it does historically mimic old fears and questions:  are social and technological advances drowning the worker, especially the younger workers, in indolence and useless diversion?  Specifically, these concerns are an echo from England in the 1600’s. What was the new controversial social networking delivery system back then?  Coffeehouses.

Coffeehouses sprang up in Oxford and hundreds followed in London. They even served as post offices. People went to them not just to drink coffee but to read and discuss the world, their interests and gossip. Strangers were encouraged to talk to strangers, regardless of station. True social networking.

Coffeehouses also tended to have their own specialty; politics, finance or even science. Isaac Newton wrote “Principia Mathematica” one of the cornerstones of modern science after a long discourse in a coffeehouse. At Jonathan’s, a coffeehouse in London, merchants kept specific tables where they did their transactions. Their business eventually turned into the London Stock Exchange.

But what did the media alarms of that day sound like? Pretty standard stuff…” these places were “the ruin of many serious and hopeful young gentlemen and tradesmen.”

So what does this tell us? The desire and the rewards for collaboration are anything but new. Often when a new technology or behavior set comes around it is often criticized as disruptive, wasteful and inconsistent with the prevailing notion of “work.”  I am sure a lot of time was wasted in 1600’s London trending out on the newest import from the Arab world; drinking coffee. Today, a lot of people waste a ton of time on Social Media. No question.

But at the same time, social networking then and now creates interaction and collaboration with all types of people, participation is encouraged, hidden talents and interests are uncovered, new ideas  flourish.  A 2012 report by consulting firm McKinsey and Company showed that the use of “enterprise social networking within companies increased the productivity of knowledge workers by 25%.” That number might be just as goofy as the $650 billion but it does highlight the very real upside.

Collaboration produces results and innovation. New vehicles for that create criticism and suspicion of indolence regardless of the century. That is a constant. All that is changing is the format.

Another constant?   Coffee

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