Community and social interaction in the wireless city: Wi-fi use in public and semi-public spaces.

Hampton, K. N., & Gupta, N.

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Hampton, K. N., & Gupta, N. (2008). Community and social interaction in the wireless city: Wi-fi use in public and semi-public spaces. New Media & Society, 10(6), 831–850.

Cafes , Coffee Shops , Community Network , Mobile Computing , Muni Wi-fi , Network , Parochial Realm , Placemakers , Privatism , Public Privatism , Social Networks , Third Places , True Mobiles

A significant body of research has addressed whether fixed internet use increases, decreases or supplements the ways in which people engage in residential and workplace settings, but few studies have addressed how wireless internet use in public and semi-public spaces influences social life. Ubiquitous wi-fi adds a new dimension to the debate over how the internet may influence the structure of community.Will wireless internet use facilitate greater engagement with co-located others or encourage a form of 'public privatism'? This article reports the findings of an exploratory ethnographic study of how wi-fi was used and influenced social interactions in four different settings: paid and free wi-fi cafes in Boston, MA and Seattle,WA.This study found contrasting uses for wireless internet and competing implications for community.Two types of practices, typified in the behaviors of 'true mobiles' and 'placemakers', offer divergent futures for how wireless internet use may influence social relationships.

Main finding
With the advent of internet connectivity via wireless internet in public and semi-public spaces, there is the potential for transformations in social life in such contexts. This study investigates wireless internet use in cafes with paid and free wi-fi. The authors argue wi-fi users in the four cafes can be classified in two general categories: (a) “true mobiles” and (b) "placemakers." True mobiles engage in wi-fi at these semi-public locations for the purpose of completing work; they avoid social interaction and use portable involvement shields to isolate themselves. Placemakers use wi-fi access as a peripheral activity and engage in opportunities for unplanned interactions with others. The authors argue that public and semi-public wi-fi access and the affordances it presents provide a shift away from privatism previously associated with the internet/computer use, but true mobiles and placemakers represent very different embodiments of the role such access can play in the structure of social networks.

Description of method used in the article
Observations (120 hours total, between December 2003 and March 2004) of wi-fi use across four cafes that offer wi-fi on-siteL two cafes that offer free wi-fi and two cafes that offer paid wi-fi. Of the four cafes, two were in Boston, Massachusetts and two were in Seattle, Washington. Short unstructured interviews (N = 20) with wi-fi users as they left the shops.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Digital Device Engagement
Field Observations Interviews
Physical types
Geographic locations