Coffeehouse Commons

Another sneak peek at the contents of the food issue of the New City Reader — in case you can’t tell, I was really rather inspired by the brief, and almost obnoxiously proud of what Will, Krista, and I managed to put together with the help of our fantastic contributors and the New City Reader team! You can pick up your own copy for free at the New Museum in New York City.

This particular article, reproduced below, is told in the form of an app pitch. It was brought to life by illustrator Nikki Hiatt, with comments from game designer Kevin Slavin, and it was inspired by a conversation with Geoff Manaugh, as well as a previous coffeehouse-based collaboration with fellow foodophile Dan Lewis in honour of Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday.

If you want to build it, please get in touch!


In the eighteenth-century English-speaking world, coffee houses were “the chief organs through which the public opinion of the metropolis vented itself,” according to historian T. B. Macauley. In addition to supplying an exotic stimulant — caffeine — coffee houses formed the central nodes in urban information networks. They were among the first public* gathering spaces where news, ideas, and goods could be debated, produced, and exchanged.

Early newspapers such as Addison’s and Steele’s Spectator were born and circulated in coffee houses, while the New York Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s of London can trace their origins to the Tontine Coffee House and Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House, respectively. Countless civic-minded enterprises were launched in coffee houses of the period; some, such as Britain’s RSA, whose mission is to support innovation for the common good, still exist today.

For the past decade, with the advent of Wi-Fi, the explosion of blogs and online news forums, and traditional media’s increasing reliance on freelancers, independent coffee shops have again become places where ideas are generated, news is consumed, and comment is free.

However, gesticulating men in wigs passing pamphlets hand-to-hand have been replaced by Mac-dependent hipsters with bad posture and permanently attached headphones. Today’s coffee shop exchanges take place online, invisible to the other occupants of the physical space in which they are produced. Meanwhile, several coffee shop owners have declared war on their freelancing clientele, complaining that they hog tables, make a single coffee last for hours and create an anti-social, library-like atmosphere.

But what if there was an app that mapped each coffee shop’s virtual information ecosystem and transformed it into a visible whole?

Using the “Coffeehouse Commons”™ web or mobile interface, journalists and bloggers can check in to submit links to their content, while readers and commenters also log in to provide URLs for their in-house activity. The app’s home page provides a constantly updated timeline of activity across all coffee shops, but by checking into a particular coffee shop, users can explore the range of information and ideas that were produced, discussed, and consumed within that space.

How would coffeehouse conversation change if it was re-attached to the physical fabric of the city?

*Access to this “public” space was, of course, limited by race, gender, class, and even the typical one-penny admission fee.

[NOTE: All illustrations by Nikki Hiatt. Originally created for and published in the New City Reader food issue, available in print form at the New Museum, or online soon.]

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  1. What is the difference between this app and the various geolocation Twitter search apps? Furthermore how the app maker can monetize this app, since unlikely the downloaders want to pay for it? (and don’t say “ads” since they are not really viable for this kind of niche use)

  2. I just noticed (by peering over her shoulder) that the woman in the next to last cartoon has excellent taste in blogs.