A bizarre media storm has gathered around wireless Internet cafes. Project PlaceSite and I have benefited. But this all deserves a closer look.
Tomorrow’s New York Times quotes me in an article by Glenn Fleishman. My words appeared in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer piece last week. On May 30 a Financial Times article about wi-fi in cafes mentioned “zombie effect” [definition here], a term we invented to explain some of the reasoning behind PlaceSite. All this mainstream coverage followed Web buzz about an entry by Glenn on his Wi-Fi Networking News weblog. The entry announced that a Seattle cafe had tried turning off wi-fi on the weekends.
I’m thankful for the PlaceSite publicity but for the record: each of my partners, Damon McCormick and Jon Snydal, contributed to this project at least as much as I did. Professor Marti Hearst served a critical role as our project advisor.
A problem with the coverage: The Financial Times article strongly implies a trend in cafes across the country that involves reduction or removal of wi-fi access. But the opposite is true, at least in Seattle and San Francisco: wi-fi is becoming more ubiquitous in cafes. The article cites just three cafes — one in Seattle and two in San Francisco — that have limited their wi-fi access. But hundreds of cafes in these cities offer wi-fi service, and more cafes add wi-fi every month.
I see no evidence of a new trend: both of the San Francisco cafes in question have been experimenting with limited access for more than a year.
The other articles, particularly the New York Times piece, were more balanced and better informed about this. But I sense a media snowball effect that might trigger an avalanche of inaccurate coverage.
A warning to reporters: consider the numbers here, so you don’t mistake aberrant behavior for what’s clearly the norm.