Chris Brogan has talked about cafe-shaped conversations, and how conversations between businesses and the public need to become a bit more intimate, like the kind of conversations you might have in a Parisian cafe.  Having just come from a trip to Paris, Spain and Italy, I saw a bit of how this culture works first hand, and I think it has implications on how we use social media in this country and beyond.

In the many cities we visited in Europe, there are cafes everywhere.  They are places for a quick coffee and snack, places to share food and conversation, places to relax.  In Spain and Italy, the Siesta is still practiced- shops and businesses close mid-day for about two to three hours everywhere, and people take walks, have lunches, go home and spend some time with family, before returning to work.  Mealtime is typically 9 pm or later- if you try to eat at Western hours of even 7 or 8 pm, restaurants are empty and they look at you as an oddity. (They must all think Americans are like elderly people trying to get the early-bird special at Denny’s.)  I rarely saw any “to-go” bags, boxes or cups, except for the occassional Starbucks in Paris.  Everyone sits or stands at a counter and enjoys their espresso, chats with friends or the barrista and then goes on with their business.

There is a culture that develops around these small establishments.  There is pretty clearly a regular clientel in many of them, and people greet each other with familiarity and joy.  There is a community that has developed, and you could say that cafes are like religion- they have a ritual and a pattern that brings structure to life.

What struck me is how much of this is missing in America.

We don’t have the corner bar or pub where people congregate after work to relax in most areas.  In the suburbs, where you have to drive everywhere, you don’t have the same logistics that make this kind of neighborhood social gathering point a regular part of the commuity- the closest we get is pick-up line at our local schools, or perhaps the playground, and this tends to be limited to moms and kids below age ten- what happens to everyone else and their needs?  There’s the kids’ sport teams, and maybe the gym, but many of these activities don’t really encourage a bonding and growth of community in the same way relaxing with coffee in a cafe does.

In the U.S., we tend to go home and shut our doors.  We get in our cars and don’t ride public transport.  We don’t have to interact with people, and we seem to take the “home is our castle” myth to its logical conclusion- our homes and apartments are bastions to keep the world out and our possessions in, and once we enter, we roll up the drawbridge and don’t let anyone in.

As a result, social media tools, like Facebook, Twitter and more serve the function of the corner pub for many of us.  We can catch up with friends in far-flung places in just a few minutes.  We may twitter about the mango salsa at our local place, but this piece of simple information creates that “cafe-shaped” pieces of information we would exchange if we actually were sitting at a pub with each other after work.  Not all information is business related, but some is. Some exchanges are like pointing people to the great sale at the mall, or the best recipe for curry, or what you’re reading.  Not all exchanges are merely background life information, but some of this information is still useful- it’s what we would talk about, face to face.  We find out who hangs out with whom.  We find out where are friends are and what their doing- we stay connected in a very ambient way, like we would if we saw our friends for coffee  in person a few times a week.  And while it may not be the “highest” or “best” use of any of these communication tools and channels, it serves a very real purpose to help us get to know each other, well in advance of any real-world meeting.

I suspect there will be some differences in adoption rates of social media  in places where cafe-shaped conversations are already a part of daily life, because the need it fills is very different.  Social is already a part of their lives; they just want the media part, to amplify the messages and expand the audience beyond the narrow focus of the cafe. Regardless of the availability of technology, wifi, and the like, the cultural reasons for adopting online communication are simply different.

By seeing how different the cafe culture is in Europe, I wonder how, or if, we can ever breech this gap and begin to create stronger “real world” local communities, when so much of it is transferring into a virtual space and away from the real world.  Group-working environments like Philly’s Independents Hall and the communities we begin to bring together through Podcamp and Barcamp events help make the virtual actual.  It gives the local community a cafe, if you will, where we can gather and share, and hopefully extend that to a more regular relationship, and will go beyond needing an event, a party or big occassion to pry people out of their homes and interact.

The power of knowing so many people, literally all over the Country and all over the World, and having a sense of that cafe-sized conversation almost daily is amazing, yet it never can completely replace the power of Coffee and Croissants.  The person to person, face to face interaction, the power of the handshake – that is still a very important part of maintaining and extending relationships.

And all the Facebook coffee and drinks won’t replace a cappucino and a smile from a friend at Cafe de la Paix.