The other night, I was at a local coffee shop searching for a new environment in hopes of replenishing my focus and work ethic (Grand aspirations, huh?). Sitting in the shop, with my laptop out and a cup of coffee not far from my hand, I mused on the interactions that coffee shops facilitate. Why has such a simple thing, a shop where you can buy coffee, become an international symbol of productivity? Coffeehouses have historical roots as social gathering points, not too dissimilar to that of bars or taverns, yet now we associate that atmosphere of coffee shops with MacBooks and earbuds, rather than just places to gather with friends. What’s caused this change in dynamics and are there any remnants of the social gathering places that these shops once were?

Coffee shops, traditionally, are identified as third places in the field of Sociology. The concept of third places was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to identify areas that don’t fall under the two major social environments that people encounter most often: home and work. This third type of social space is characterized as being socially neutral, and highly accessible, allowing for more diverse social interaction at different socioeconomic levels and through various means. Examples of these places might be, apart from a coffee shop, a store, a community center, library, or even a street or sidewalk. The essential aspect is the diversity of interaction they enable because of their neutrally and accessibility by all social classes and groups.

A 2013 research study by Woldoff Lozzi and Dilks yielded that the portrayal of coffee shops as third places is still valid, but that new elements have initiated a slow change in the social dynamics of these places. Coffeehouses are beginning to become private zones to work instead of purely neutral spaces for socialization (referring to socialization on a macro scale, not merely the intentional socialization sometimes denoted by this term). This new aspect is undeniably apparent when contrasted with other types of third places such as churches, clubs, and parks. However, the question that follows is what caused this transition? The most obvious answer would be that a new social group (such as those who merely want low rent pseudo-offices to work in) has overtaken the previously unfocused group that third places are characteristic of; however, I would suggest that instead, this new social group emerged from the previous. The norms of the former group are still assumed and add to the usefulness of coffee shops as work spaces. The achieved effect is an environment that can be perceived as being socially responsive, despite the clear social isolation of the persons in the environment. Lozzi and Dilks evidently classify these new areas as Multifunctional Spaces.

Coffeehouses clearly maintain duality in social nature, the question is, will the social responsiveness of these environments disappear? Or remain, despite the social isolation that members increasingly participate in as coffee shops become less recreational and more work-centric?