Is Starbucks Killing Community?

Flickr Photo “Starbucks – makes da people – come together!” by Andre A

I frequently find myself awake at 3:00 in the morning and unable to get back to sleep.  However, I never have trouble getting to sleep at 10:30 in the evening.  It usually takes about three pages of whatever print-based fiction I have going (Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer).  But last night was an exception, when Brenda mentioned an Associated Press article that she kept running into on Sunday.  “What’s the true cost of a Starbucks Latte?” describes a book by Temple University professor, Bryant Simon. ((Matheson, Kathy. “What’s true cost of a Starbucks latte, author asks.” Associated Press 27 Sep 2009: n. pag. Web. 28 Sep 2009. <>.))  (Wonder if I’d sell more books if they were authored by Warlick David?)

The book, Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, seems to be saying that you won’t learn about America in a Starbucks, because no body’s talking.  WiFi is a particular target for Simon, implying that people go to Starbucks to surf the Net, and if not merely to treat themselves to a multi-syllabic beverage, carry a status symbol, or relax in a buffered safe haven away from home — leaving no room or attention for the civic discourse that use to happen at funding depleted libraries and other public spaces.  The article states, “…that Starbucks, a private corporation, has enriched itself in part by taking advantage of Americans’ impoverished civic life.”

I think that’s a little overboard.  I told Brenda that there are slow times when many of the people at the Starbucks I write at are sitting alone at tables, tapping at their laptops.  But that’s the exception.  Most of the time the room is loud with conversation, and, from time to time, I find myself drawn into discussions with others about a variety of issues.

But even though I find myself feeling a bit defensive about Simon’s researched position, I am also sympathetic to his concerns.  I’m certain that a case could be made that we are even more engaged in civic conversation today than ever before, because of our increasingly ubiquitous access to a global digital community.  But I find it too easy and appealing to connect exclusively to people who agree with my world view.  Engaging in conversations within like-minded communities might even lead me to feel so passionately about my positions that I could become less sensitive to the positions of others on the occasions that I find myself in contact with them, behaving with less civility than I should.

The problem is not the Internet, WiFi, or even Starbucks.  The problem is us.  We simply need to learn and embrace the fact that NOTHING IS SIMPLE.

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10 thoughts on “Is Starbucks Killing Community?”

  1. “We simply need to learn and embrace the fact that nothing is simple,” is a commendable, concise conclusion. It begs, however, a little more: we are human beings living in complex times with often complex issues. Answers, then, can only come after thorough research and consideration.

    The importance of practising critical thinking skills is an important dynamic for adults and students.

    1. As we tend to group with like-minded people, we seem to want to factor it all down to simple statements. “Democrats want to spend your money.” “Republicans do not care about the little man!” It seems that if we accept that nothing is that simple, then we may be more willing to do the research and to listen to the other side. I guess that’s what I was thinking when I wrote that.

  2. David,

    I go to Starbucks to work and don’t want to interact with anyone. I will share a funny anecdote though.

    One day two years ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks interacting with Anne Smith’s Engligh students who were discussing Daniel Pink’s dreadful book. I had earbuds in so I could listen carefully to the kids and I was busily typing in the chat window when a complete stranger tapped me on the shoulder. My concentration broken, I ripped out the earphones, turned abruptly towards the women and asked, “Yes?”

    The woman then said, “You sure have a lot of windows open,” while pointing at my laptop. I replied, “Yes, and I’m teaching a class right now in Colorado!”

  3. I do like this hypothesis, but i wonder if it is not the fact that we are not socially engaged face to face but rather we prefer to be socially engaged with people that we cannot see. Therefore it is easier to find like minded people to engage in a conversation about what ever your taste for the day would happen to be.

  4. I don’t know. Overseas Starbucks is a common meeting place for expats. “Meet you at Starbucks?” no matter where you live in the world is a pretty common phrase. It is a watering hole where we go to interact with each other or with our virtual friends. I’ve only ever paid for Internet access once at a Starbucks. I much prefer to sponsor those coffee houses that have free wifi when I’m working online. Just because Starbucks gives up one more way to have conversations doesn’t mean we’re ditching the old model….yet. I think the really interesting fact is that Starbucks is constantly rated one of the most engaged brands ( online. How does that play into what they offer at their stores and how those that buy their product expect to be able to engage?

  5. Nothing is simple. Completely true. There are different sides to every argument, and I agree with you, David, in that I’ve been drawn into conversations at various Starbucks before. It’s a part of our society that we should embrace.

  6. David: thanks for the thoughtful post, and for sharing our own experience of Starbucks. I included an excerpt from this post in the compilation of perspectives on coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks that I just posted on my own blog.

    I think the issue of homogeneity vs. heterogeneity is an important one. It’s interesting to see the different experiences people are sharing in comments on this blog (and elsewhere) about whether Starbucks promotes interactions among similarly-minded or differently-minded folks (or indeed, whether it promotes any interactions at all). In my research, I was interested to discover divergent opinions on whether the classic (possibly romanticized) coffeehouses of the 17th century were “hotbeds of intellectual sparring” among people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, or tended to have “subject-specific alignments” with clergymen going to one coffeehouse, actors going to another one, etc.

    It seems that there is a history of debate on the kinds of debate (and other interactions) that are fostered in coffeehouses … sounds like a good topic for a conversation cafe 🙂

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