What Happened To The Internet Cafe?
The internet café has become almost obsolete in today’s world.
In a world where we wear our computers on our wrists, carry them in our pockets as phones and curl up in bed with our iPads, the idea of going to a dedicated location to access the internet seems quaint. However, once upon a time, the idea of the “internet café” was both a modern and novel phenomenon.
Unsurprisingly originating in the hub of tech today—San Francisco and the Silicon Valley—the mid 1990s saw a collection of about 20 coffee houses equipped with connected computers where visitors could tap into a communications network called “SF Net”. According to a narrative history published in Gizmodo, these early internet café pioneers were geeks and hackers, all communicating and computing with each other with aliases in the name of fun and connection.
It wasn’t long until the idea went mainstream across the Atlantic, when the first mainstream internet café geared towards the public, called Cyberia, opened in London. It offered “everyday folks access to a desktop computer and the World Wide Web for a small hourly fee”. Airliner EasyJet opened a chain of consumer facing internet cafés across Europe, and the idea was quickly replicated in New York, beginning the golden—if brief—era of the internet café.
If the early days of the internet café were about gamers, geeks and internet obsessives, the pre-mobile era of personal computing saw it go a bit more mainstream. It makes sense that when people didn’t have access to their email, their schedule or instantaneous communication via a mobile phone as we do now, they needed a way to connect on the go, and internet cafés provided that at quite a nominal fee (usually around $1 per hour). However, they also served as social hubs for a certain kind of user—usually extreme gamers and hackers—as the internet café offered a place to connect with similar people, provided faster internet than was available in many homes, and created a culture of digital obsessives who felt more at home in cyberspace than they did in the outside world. The Wikipedia page for Cyberia notes that it was considered a “semi-nerd lab room creative technology centre” and often served as the site of afterparties for ravers, giving it an countercultural and alternative edge.
By 2004, just a decade after the first internet café opened in London’s West End, the BBC reported that there were 20,000 internet cafés dotted all over the globe. However, just as quickly as it started up, the phenomenon started to slip into decline. Ten years after the first internet café opened, at-home internet connections were made widely available, which simply removed the need to go down to a café in order to check email or make an Amazon order. Once mobile devices became prominent—especially with the launch of the iPhone in 2007—the cafés became even more redundant, as the need for a “digital pit stop” when someone was out and about and unable to reach their at-home connection became increasingly irrelevant.
It’s true that internet cafés do still exist today, but their reputation has changed. While many people still find them useful when traveling—especially in developing countries where internet access in a hotel might be harder to come by—they are not so much seen as a part of our daily digital lives. Unfortunately, they also have a bit of a reputation as being used for nefarious purposes like illegal downloading, piracy, fraud, and the internet phenomenon of “cat-fishing”.
It’s hard to say if in another ten years any internet cafés will exist at all. If anything, their short lifespan is testament to the shockingly fast way that technology changes and progresses.
In this age of increasingly prevalent Digital Darwinism, which other industries will lose out? Take a look at this blog post to find out.