I’d like you to imagine, for a moment, that’s it 1999. Personal computers have been around for a bit now. You even own one. But they’re far too clunky to carry around when you’re anywhere outside your home. So during you’re extended stay abroad, or just a stroll down the street, you have no other choice but to visit a local cyber café to get some work done, answer emails, and a do a little web surfing.
At first, the experience is a little awkward. You sit behind a computer that’s part of a row of terminals. People scuffle in and out. When something big happens, a few people might flock to a screen and figure out what’s going on. But over time, you start to recognize people. You gather some tips and some cool sites you’ve never seen. You all have very little in common outside of the computers sitting in front of you. But it’s enough.
When you get home, you find yourself yearning for that same comfort and community. The misfit regulars and hidden secrets and limited privacy. So you hop online and go to the cyber café’s website, tinged with nostalgia. It’s there you notice a webcam hosted by the café, that shows a view from inside, 24/7. And just like that, you’re virtually inside a real-world experience, as the lines between them start to blur.
This would not be a wholly unique experience. There are many out there with variations of the same story. Cyber café’s are an important part of the web’s growth, and for some, it was their introduction to it.
It’s tough to nail down exactly where the internet café was born. As early as 1988, even before the web, a prototype popped up in South Korea called Electronic Cafe. In 1991, Wayne Gregori went around to a bunch of coffee shops in San Francisco and installed coin-operated computer terminals. He networked these computers together on SF Net, so users could chat on a shared bulletin board system, and use these shops to connect to the Internet. It became pretty popular, especially for those without personal computers.
Ivan Pope took that idea a bit further. In 1994, he was tasked with creating a unique space for an Internet event to be held by the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. He drew up a proposal for a converted, high-end café fitted with Apple computers at every seat. Consumers could digitally peruse their favorite artwork while being waited on by a helpful staff. Pope even had a name for his proposal: Cyber Café.
But ask around to enough people, and you’ll come to a bit of a consensus on the first full-fledged cyber café. Partly inspired by Pope’s proposal, Cyberia was opened in London in September of 1994. Eva Pascoe and Gene Teare were the brains behind it, and they had got it up and running in just a few months (after coming up with the idea in their kitchen one night). In fact, Cyberia was originally intended to be a casual, informational space for women to come and learn how to use the Internet. Use a café for their space was meant to keep the whole thing as approachable as possible.
That idea changed awfully quick. When Cyberia threw its doors open, there was a line of (mostly) men at the door. Pascoe and Teare had no idea just how popular their idea would be. On that first day, Pascoe brought a single coffee pot, thinking it more than enough to serve a handful of expected customers. She spent the rest of the day scouring the city for a suitable replacement, one that could service a loaded shop.
The cyber café idea spread like wildfire, with locations opening up in Toronto, New York, Helsinki, India, South Africa, and just about anywhere you could think of. They became hotspots for social activity wherever they sprung up. The focus of these establishments was on the computers themselves, usually lined up right next to each other or dispersed in semi-private cubes. Access to the terminals was paid for by the minute or hour. On the computers, you could check your email, hop on IRC, or, of course, surf the web.
But it was still a neighborly place where you could come in, grab a cappuccino and chat with other pro-users about the latest tips and new sites. Some websites held launch parties at these café’s, to bring together a community around a new idea.
There were even some countries, like India, where a host of new users were introduced to the web specifically because a cyber café opened up. These shops became a sort of community hub. Not a virtual one, mind you, but a very real, very social one. If you wanted to know who in your neighborhood was ahead of the technological curve, this was the place to find out.
So it’s understandable that even when customers were at home, they still yearned for their café clique. Cyberia, in the meantime, had done quite well for itself. They opened locations all over the United Kingdom. Edinburgh’s Cyberia location had an interesting idea. They put up a webcam and stuck a link to it on their site. During the day, the webcam faced inside the café, with a full view of customers. At night, it was turned to face the street.
Other cyber café’s quickly followed with their own webcams. So even when you weren’t there, you could still be there. And surprisingly enough, a good amount of people actually visited these webcams so they could be connected virtually if not physically. It acted as a sort of comfort for a lot of users, at a time when the web was bringing people together, not pushing them apart.
And that’s how, in 1999 (or thereabouts), you might find yourself at home, staring at the virtual window of your computer screen, looking out the very real windows of your favorite cyber café, biding your time until you get connected there again, in more ways than one.