Has The Cafe Moved Online?

Les Deux Magots

Image by cucumber! via Flickr

As I’ve been exploring the startup scene in europe this month, I’ve made my home base in Paris with my family. And I’ve been blogging and twittering a bit about Paris. Yesterday I got this twitter message from Arthur:

Why the Expats Left Paris (from Saturday’s WSJ) http://snurl.com/2uhnf thought you’d be interested

It’s an interesting piece penned by a writer named Dinaw Mengestu who is currently living and working in Paris. In it Dinaw explains that the Paris of the 50s and the 60s is long gone:

It’s hard if not inevitable now to think of that previous generation of
writers and not romanticize them and their lives here a bit: to think
of yourself sitting under a bright light at a table in the back of the
elegant Café de Flore, in shouting distance of Sartre or Simone de
Beauvoir, or to have been on the terrace at the neighboring Les Deux
Magots when James Baldwin and Richard Wright reportedly had a heated
argument about an essay Baldwin had written excoriating Wright’s
"Native Son." Such events and conversations seem to belong exclusively
to another era, one that was measured in francs instead of euros, when
there wasn’t an American Apparel store to be found just on the other
side of the Boulevard St. Germain.

The essay goes on to explain that the artists aren’t coming to Paris anymore because Paris has lost its unique flavor, becoming more like the rest of the world. Or maybe the rest of the world has become more like Paris. Dinaw suggests that artists might be going to Berlin or Buenos Aires instead.

There is something to say for the "easy life" of Paris or BA. I am headed to Berlin on Thursday so I’ll let you know after my trip about that city. But I think something way more profound is going on than one city becoming the preferred place for artists to congregate, work, and discuss and debate their work.

I believe the Internet is slowly taking the place of the cafe as the congregation point. It is drawing more and more artists to it as the place to showcase the work, to debate its merits, and to meet and colloborate with other artists.

I am writing this less than three blocks from Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots and I can assure you that the Internet cannot recreate the vibe of sitting on the street with a friend and a cup of expresso discussing and debating your passions.

But the idea of a physical place that we "must be" doesn’t have the same impact anymore. Right now, I can engage in a debate with friends in Australia, China, Japan, India, Israel, Italy, France, England, NYC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago at the same time. Or we can post our thoughts to each other (and the world) over the course of a day, a week, or a month, and share our passions with each other and  learn from each other.

Our Cafe de Flore is Techmeme or Tech Newsjunk or Twitter or FriendFeed or Tumblr or Flickr or something else. And we are just getting started. It will be interesting to see if the new cafe society produces the kind of work that the traditional ones did.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. vincentvw

    If the café is truly disappearing then I think we’re losing something very important. I’m one of those people that doesn’t see the internet as a substitute for life. Of course, I also don’t see cafés as a substitute for work :).But as far as Paris as a city goes, I agree that it’s no longer like it was in my parents’ age, at least according them. Still, in every place there are pockets that you can only discover after spending considerable time there (weeks, months, years).

    1. vincentvw

      To add to that, I do think that there’s plenty of room for symbiosis and the opencoffeeclub, which uses services like Meetup + a random good café all over the world, is a perfect example for that.

  2. Chang

    Funny you mention this, as Korea’s most popular online BBS service is called Daum Cafe. How aptly named it was, in retrospect.

      1. Chang

        the latter 🙂

  3. Michael F. Martin

    This must be true on some level. The internet has definitely created new communities.But I think the argument is easily taken too far. I think the tightest communities in the future will leverage the best of both online and offline worlds. Consider how Twitter has been used for spontaneous parties at the Shake Shack, for example. We need more of that.In general, I’d say that the internet can be used very profitably to facilitate communication among people who would seldom if ever agree (or be able to agree) to meet in person. It’s like a market price in that regard.But the internet is just as poor as market prices at coordinating people when higher bandwidth communication is key. People go online to find potential dates; but they don’t literally date online.

    1. fredwilson

      Very true

  4. gregorylent

    it is not quite the cafe … it needs some smart startup to write some software … i want exactly the experience on a website that i have walking into a cafe, there are four friends in conversational flight, and i can simply join in with any or allimagine, the equivalent of three or four friendfeeds right on the first page

    1. fredwilson

      And the virtual coffee and pastry just doesn’t compare either!

  5. David B.

    I think yes and no. The web has expanded the cafe experience and given me new circles to be part of — circles that are sometimes much more specialized than they ever could be in reality. But that spills over to reality and I end up making new circles locally and going to cafes with them. Open Coffee is a big hit here in Prague, for example, not because we don’t communicate enough with each other on-line, but that face-to-face still conveys more.As for the WSJ article, I think he dismissed the Euro’s role too quickly. Every good bohemian scene is located in a culturally-rich but economically not-very-rich place. Paris is simply too wealthy to support a burgeoning artist community. Prague took over Paris’ title in the 90’s but then it got too rich as well. Buenos Aires, Kiev, Sarajevo — who knows where the next Paris might occur. Wherever it is, though, it won’t be in the EU.

    1. fredwilson

      A friend suggested istanbul to me via email this morning

    2. vruz

      I think it’s happening in Buenos Aires

  6. Martin Owen

    I figure for most Parisians it was never like it used to be. New York seems to be a place for international writers to congregate. Fred, I am sure you bump into Salman Rushdie and Peter Carey in your local Starbucks all the time. Singer-songwriters throng around Bleeker St. and Jeff Koon is dashing off sketches to pay his restaurant bills.

    1. fredwilson

      More like lou reed and julian schnabel in my ‘hood but u get your point

  7. ivanpope

    I invented the internet cafe (Cybercafe) because I believed that the combination of online and offline would work in a cafe setting, i.e. that it’s not aobut online or offline, but a combination of both. Of course, since those days (at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, always watch the artists, eh?) internet cafes have become something totally different. So do we want to be in an online or an offline cafe? These days I think we are in both most of the time – that’s where we live.

  8. chrishanz

    I think its a tough argument to say that Paris is just like everywhere else because Im not sure there is anywhere else quite like it (Berlin is up there though which i’m sure you are about to find, and of course NYC). But in terms of the global meeting place for all the latest and greatest ideas I don’t think you can argue that it is now the internet more than any city of place. Although it seems that meetings all over the world (especially tech/design meetings seem to take place at some type of cafe or are one way or another coffee centric :)Great article.

  9. Jeremy

    Great post Fred. I am a frequent reader, but only occasional commenter. I wrote a paper about this in grad school suggesting that the european cafes of the 18th century where political discourse used to take place (the classical notion of the “public sphere”) had been recreated in the blogosphere. I’m not sure if its an exact replica or if blogs have actually expanded the breadth of discourse. I also think there is still some “cafe culture” out there in that its useful for people to meet face to face to talk about ideas. All in all, I think looking at cafe culture where people interact and share ideas can tell us a lot about the social web.

  10. Martin Owen

    Third places – not home, not work – are important to the creation of all civic society. As I roam around not so tourist trodden parts of Europe I detect a culture of places to “hang”. Amongst teenagers in rural and sub-urban areas it seems to be around the village Spar(7-11 store). This is often because it is the only place open, public and legal (in the UK you need to be 18 to use the pub). There is a potential for these places to provide a powerful nexus – except of course that the owners have even tried to dissuade visitors by playing high pitched (and therefore only detected by the young) noise over loud speakers.What I see as the future potential of these public spaces is their enhancement by pervasive wireless media (wifi or 3G). The mobile phones in the kid’s pockets augment the real space they are in and ultimately much more interesting than simply being on-line. Already I use quasi public spaces (or coffee shops as they are sometimes referred to) for my office and meetings. When these kids enter business their techo-nomadic culture will be their norm. Get out off office block investment soon. Invest in tools for mobility. Charitably wire-up the places were kids “hang”.

  11. S. Neil Vineberg

    Thanks for this very thoughtful post. I think a global, online cafe has emerged made possible by various social networks and communities of bloggers. We’re seeing adopters, including myself, use this to their advantage. Does that mean this statement is true — “the Internet is slowly taking the place of the cafe as the congregation point. It is drawing more and more artists to it as the place to showcase the work, to debate its merits, and to meet and collaborate with other artists?” Yes, if the word “slowly” means a decade. And if you replace “artists” with “tech geeks”.There is a transformation happening and it is unstoppable. And it’s good. But, nothing can replace face to face at a real cafe. And that’s a good reason to leave all technology and social media behind one day a week and just remember how it used to be…without it.

  12. john smith

    hry hry

  13. kenberger

    (Always stepping in to state the obvious):I met w/ your partner Albert yesterday, which last minute changed from phone to coffee in the park (the one containing The Shake Shack– NYC’s Cafe de Flore!). The order of magnitude improvement needn’t be described, the depth and complexity and just general vibe and reading between the lines, etc.And this was a meeting between people from the same culture/demographic/language.Humans have a chemical reaction when interfacing in person that can not be replaced. This has been proven even w/ the best WebEx technology.So to me: Has the cafe *moved* online? Certainly not literally. NEVER will completely. Does online incredibly enhance just about everything we do? I’ve dedicated my career to it.

    1. fredwilson

      Well said ken

  14. kenberger

    Re the artists leaving certain cities: seems an interesting phenomenon in more recent times (post-1960s) is that there’s a lot more intra-city spreading and divides now.When I arrived in the North Beach area of San Francisco in 1995, it was loaded with artists. Almost all were soon driven out due to rising rents. Many headed out to Oakland and other bay area places. (so I guess I was partly to blame! :0 )When I arrived in the East Village 3 years ago, gentrification was already well on its way. The ‘artists’ have all mostly headed out to Williamsburg, which in turn gentrified, and now they go deeper into Brooklyn (Bushwick, Crown Heights, etc).Re your search for the “New Paris”, I don’t think you’ll find it in today’s Istanbul or Berlin. Not even Shanghai, now oft-claimed as “Paris of the East”. They’re all awesome places, but too close to the crossroads of Rest of the World to not have Starbucks, etc. You’ve got to go more off the map.First few candidates that come to my mind that have struck me this way:Tashkent, UzbekistanHanoi, VietnamLeon or Granada, NicaraguaCartagena, Colombia

    1. gregorylent

      siem reap, cambodia is like santa fe now .. lol … how you know a place is over? it has made the lonely planet, and/or, has a starbucks …

      1. kenberger

        Lonely Planet is STILL my travel bible. They do a great job uncovering just about every speck of the universe. I wouldn’t count out a place as over just because they’re in LP.Siem Reap– true enough. The town center sure has turned into a party place.

        1. gregorylent

          i like to read the guidebooks after the trip, otherwise i just experience what was in the book, pus an accident or two … i like the full-accident trips the best …your blog has a nice mix, and feel … write more! and more travel stuff

  15. J.D. Falk

    Conversation or no, the food is way better in Paris cafés.

  16. Gotham Gal

    Different conversations are taking place in cafes around the world. We live in a flatter world than we did 20 or 30 years ago. People are gravitating to areas that might appeal more to their sensibility because they can. Some are in Buenos Aires while others are in Paris. There is no doubt that the high cost of urban living has affected artists in every category. These artists might be gravitating towards smaller cities that are not necessarily on everyone’s radar but you can read their thoughts on line. There is nothing quite like people ( that would probably me included in the middle age part) in their middle age life espousing what was. Look at history. The writer from the WSJ, is he truly in touch with what is actually going on today in cafes or will he have to wait another 10 years to find out what was happened. Did everyone know they were history in the making at Cafe Flore in the late 60’s? Perhaps a cafe in Seattle right now has 30 people sitting around, drinking coffee with their laptops. Chatting away about politics, art, books and the world at large. Or perhaps there is a group who has found each other through a social network on life having the same discussions. We will find out years from now that 5 of those people ( who spoke frequently and came together because of location ) are the artists, politicians and book writers of 2010.

    1. gregorylent

      ha, nice … though seattle was the 80’s, early 90’s lol … cool always starts with artists, by the time cool IS artists leave …. same with bali, etc.the new artists areas will be the suburbs, abandoned and run down like the old time urban downtowns, don’t you think?

  17. BillSeitz

    does this imply that SiliconValley has less relevance for the future?

  18. Mark Evans

    Fred,What’s interesting about blog post is it comes in the wake of your hunt for blog inspiration. Going to Paris is a good way to some. 🙂

  19. sonicsrini

    In Berlin, for a great quick meal, go to Nollendorfplatz and get falafel at Habibi with the mango chutney stuff.Quite possibly the best falafel in the ENTIRE WORLD !!!!!!!

    1. fredwilson

      Damn, missed that

      1. sonicsrini

        Ah ! you missed out 🙂 it’s the tahini plus the mango-chutney (my mom isout of bangalore so i grew up on Bedekar mango pickle – another tip foryou). here’s a link to Habibi, they are out of this world:http://www.lonelyplanet.com

  20. Martin Buhr

    Fred,I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the startup activity in Paris. Let me know if you’d like to compare notes (I’m based in Luxembourg).Martin

  21. Mrinal

    I think there is debates/ discussions/ conversations and then there is genuine relationships – its what I call ‘The Cat (needs no maintenance/commitment – ‘add friend’), The Dog (totally needs it – ‘make friend’) and Web2.0 (is empowering since it enhances your reach – ‘Add Friend’ and then ‘make friend’)’ effect

  22. annehubert

    and in the vein of creatives living all over the world and finding/building communities online, through their work, across boundaries: MTV is making an effort to create one home for these artists and push it out around the world – check it out http://mtvengineroom.com/

  23. josh guttman

    The internet is destroying the town square and making us dumber at the same time – http://www.theatlantic.com/…. Sounds like the perfect storm of self-destruction….mwa ha ha. What have we done??!!:)

    1. gregorylent

      we haven’t done anything, just responding to a “rise in frequency”, in terms of consciousness, and these technologies that we see are the enabling mechanisms to express that … what’s coming will be even more amazing

  24. patwoodward

    i don’t know if the cafe is moving online or not but, what I do know is that exclusive nature of a cool cafe, city, neighborhood or any sort of hip hang is being broken down by the communication tools of the web.

  25. Robert Bruce

    I’ll take Lisbon over FriendFeed anytime.

    1. gregorylent

      lol, so true … digital approximations of the real thing only go so far … enjoy

  26. scott crawford

    Is the cafe becoming mobile? Meet-ups, tweet-ups and, soon, when all the world has location-based connectivity in their pockets, the physical cafe can take shape just about anywhere (minus 600 starbucks closing) the creative energy centers. Mayhaps it will even become sport, a form of creativity in itself, a bit of gaming in the spirit of invention and countercultural diddling about.

  27. Dan Weinreb

    Paris is SO overrated. There are some important museums there, but otherwise I have not found it interesting or even that pretty. Commonwealth Avenue in Boston beats the Champs Elyssee any day, and I’m not just saying that because I live near Boston. There are so many fascinating and cool cities to visit in the world! I would not recommend Paris to someone who wants to see the world. Now, Tokyo, that’s another story!!

  28. BenParis

    Yes Paris was and still is a very nice capital city to live in, and lovers from all around the world will always look at Paris at the most romantic place. However, that romantic atmosphere, is long gone. Poets and writers have helped to build an art and culture scene, which stayed for centuries one of the brightest spots.And yes, cities like Berlin are probably more dynamic in terms of arts or music, maybe just more underground. But I am not sure people come to Paris to find what NY or Berlin can offer, but more a unique touch, atmosphere, where having a coffee with friends at the terrace of Cafe de Flore still feels good…And Michael is right, internet should be seen as an unparalleled improvement in our ability to share and communicate in the the real world.

  29. thomasl824

    To be in Paris in your 20’s foot loose is not something that you’ll re create online. The wandering and exploring the city, new people, new sights. Give me the real deal, anytime!

  30. mikenolan99

    Here’s my favorite tip form my recent travels around the world…Follow a local to lunch.Keep your eyes open – Who is making delivery’s – Where do they eat? – Where is a local business person heading to?We have found the best, “path less traveled” places this way…MikeIf you have a second, my wife keeps a travel blog – http://www.takethekidswith.com – last a year ago June we took the three teenage kids around the world….

  31. needcaffeine

    hasn’t Prague replaced Paris as the new hipster hangout? I believe Budapest will probably replace Prague shortly, as it’s as raw as Prague used to be….though maybe some other place like Ljubljiana. Paris will always have great cafes, excellent food(not so much for Budapest), and an air of literary/artist pasts; even if it’s no longer considered the current trend maker.btw, the best restaurant I went to recently in Paris, and with a local was Le Tournesol http://www.le-tournesol.fr/

  32. needcaffeine

    plus I can’t accept the theory of the Cafe Culture moving fully online. Part of the Cafe culture, is having a brainstorming session on social, political, cultural issues….that has to be done in group live setting to be fully functional, else it’s just a soapbox ideas and then banter on that.also another great restaurant, I stumbled upon….Le Caveau Du Palais, 19 Place Dauphine – 75001, tel.01 43 26 04 28

  33. Life Observer

    Great post on cafe life. Has the Cafe moved online? Let’s just pray it is sumwhere to be found! I have my own cafe here in Pasadena California, owned by a Paris trained chef.

  34. clmorrel3

    Check out my new start-up maybe you’ll like it…Petri Dish Cafe, unlike a typical cafe, is a new concept bringing people and technology together creating a new virus for communication and entertainment not only through the Internet, but also now in a physical location Boulder, CO. Petri Dish Cafe is the answer to an increasing demand in Boulder, Co. The Public/Tech Start-up’s want: (1) Access to Tech Industry and volumes of information now available on the Internet, and (2) Access at a cost they can afford and in such a way that they aren’t socially, economically, or politically isolated. Petri Dish Cafe’s goal is to crush the paradigms that many believe The “New Generation” is lazy and enjoy sitting behind screens, creating that person-to-person connection. Our viral community provides the community with social, educational, entertaining, atmosphere for worldwide communication. Petri Dish Café wants to help Tech-Start-ups introduce their product design to be viral, putting vitality into the start-up company by networking, PR, creative strategies.