S. Kritikos on Thu, 23 Apr 1998 06:53:38 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Cybercafe decline

<New York Times: Circuits> April 16, 1998

The Ballad Of the Cybercafe


Hunched over a computer, Mike Rivera pecked at its keyboard, keeping up
his end of a conversation in a chat room. "Hey, I think I got a lesbian
on here," he said in a stage whisper.

Rivera, who is 19, does not have a computer at home, he said, so he was
trading messages with an unseen stranger on a computer at a cybercafe,
which sells computer access, light food and coffee.

But Rivera was the only person seated at the neat row of six shiny
computers on a recent afternoon at XS New York, a cybercafe and video
game arcade in midtown Manhattan. Worse, Rivera, who works behind the
pizza counter at XS, was not even a paying customer. "Someone left it on
so I started messing with it," he said before finally returning to the
pizza counter.

The deserted computers at XS New York are not unusual. In city after
city, cybercafes have quietly closed or turned into something else.

And many of the ones that are still in business are attracting fewer and
fewer visitors -- perhaps surprising, given the ballyhoo when cybercafes
became popular in the mid-1990's.

In a way, the decline of the cybercafe is an indicator of the increasing
strength of America's embrace of the computer and the Internet. As
people who sampled the World Wide Web in cafes found themselves seduced
by it, and as more computers became affordable, many got their own
computers and speedy home connections. Along the way, the cybercafes
started drying up.

The notion of a cybercafe -- a place for Net surfers to socialize on a
tide of gourmet coffee -- is at odds with how most people want to use
computers, even in their leisure time. Those who Web surf, read e-mail,
write or program or do just about anything else on a computer often do so
in solitude. Paying $7 to $14 an hour for a seat in a cafe to work or
play on a computer is not necessarily logical.

"Those two ideas don't mesh well," said Pearl Mitchell, an acting
assistant treasurer for a Wall Street bank and trust company and a
part-time model.

Mitchell, 21, who was recently in a New York cybercafe shopping on the
Internet for her first computer, said that once she bought her dream
desktop machine, she would sharply cut back on her visits to cybercafes.
She has been going three to five times a week to check her e-mail and
browse her favorite sites, she said.

It is precisely that sort of change in computing habits, say many
associated with cybercafes in the United States, that have these Internet
watering holes dying off like dinosaurs after that really big meteor

The IDT Megabite Cafe, for example, which opened two years ago in the
shadow of some of Manhattan's biggest computer shops, closed in February.
Its owner, Gaddy Haymov, reopened the cafe as a kosher pizza and sushi
shop -- without the computers -- called the Original Boychicks.

The @Cafe in Greenwich Village, once very popular, stands empty and
boarded up. Weathered fliers cling to its bricks, reminding passers-by of
the computer cruising that could be had inside not so long ago.

Cybercafes have recently closed in cities as different as Washington and
Louisville, Ky. Even in San Francisco, ground zero for the current
explosion in Internet development and the holy land for worshipers of all
things computer, the cybercafe scene is struggling to survive.

"It is on the decline in terms of the numbers of people using them,"
said Craig Phillips, a documentary filmmaker who last year completed a
short film about cybercafe culture in San Francisco. "It reached a peak
out here before I was doing this film."

Phillips, a 29-year-old administrative assistant for the California
Humanities Council, said he had gone from visiting cybercafes in the San
Francisco Bay area frequently to visiting them only occasionally. "For
being places that provided a way to socialize, to meet a bunch of people,
that's not happening as much these days," he said.

In fact, he said, while making his 25-minute documentary, "Connected,"
he discovered that cybercafes, particularly one called the Horseshoe in
the Haight-Ashbury section of the city, had severely scaled back computer

Some computer cafes have become a haven for young people simply looking
for a place to hang out more than a place to go on line. "Some tourist
would come in and then leave quickly," Phillips noted.

But in many other countries, especially in Central America, Africa and
parts of Western Europe, where computer and Internet use has
significantly lagged behind that in the United States, the cybercafe
scene still sizzles.

And in Hawaii, where the rates of computer and Internet use are among
the highest in the United States, cybercafes generally remain popular.
Some, like the three-year-old Internet Cafe in Honolulu, attract mostly
students and tourists who didn't pack their computers along with their
bathing suits and suntan lotion.

"A lot of people are still coming in just for fun," said Tresy Lorch,
manager of the cafe. "We try to keep up and offer people what they
want." At the Internet Cafe, that means a friendly atmosphere with
reasonable rates and superfast Internet connections.

But part of the cybercafes' continuing allure in Hawaii, 5,000 miles
from the mainland, is that they provide a way for people to come together
and ease the sense of the island state's geographic isolation, some say.
"Some people really feel that," said Olin Lagon, who works in Hawaii as a
director of special projects for Worldpoint, a maker of language
translation software. "Besides being so different and clean, Hawaii is
the world's most isolated land mass. Here, cybercafes are like
sophisticated nightclubs."

For different reasons, cybercafes are also flourishing in foreign lands.
In Mexico, for instance, Internet directories of cybercafes list 15 in
the Mexico City area alone and some 50 nationwide.

"We opened 18 months ago with four machines," said Israel Salgado Leyva,
manager of the Cyberspace Cafe, a popular spot in Condesa, a
neighborhood of leafy parks and Art Deco apartment buildings in Mexico
City. "Now we have 14 Pentium computers." He added that he planned to
install 10 more soon.

In Milan, groups of people routinely visit cybercafes to jointly cruise
Internet sites, said Paolo Bardicchia, an Italian-born business
consultant who works in England.

Any Net sites featuring the actor Leonardo DiCaprio have been especially
popular for communal consumption since he starred in the billion-dollar
film "Titanic."

"It is much different there than here," said Bardicchia, who stopped in
the XS cybercafe recently during a business trip to New York. "They are
not places where people go alone."

At the Virtual World Internet Cafe, which is in the Virtual World
Electronics Store in Moscow, the scene is decidedly futuristic.
Customers, whose ages ranged from 11 to 17 on a recent afternoon, occupy
the cafe's  nine computer workstations in a well-lighted space where the
central decoration is an illuminated photo of two hands reaching across a
globe. The Internet access here is free, and no purchases are necessary.
But those wishing to surf the Net must get on the waiting list early
because vacancies last only long enough for someone to leave a seat and
another person to sit down.

Yevgeny Alichinikov, a college freshman and self-proclaimed movie
addict, was using his hour on the computer to surf the Complete Oscar
site. "I can get everything on films on the Web," said Alichinikov. "My
favorite actor is Rutger Hauer, and this way I can find out all the
films that he's been in. Now I am looking for films with Glenn Close."

In San Francisco, Jonathan Nelson, chief executive of Organic Online,
an interactive design and communications company there, said cybercafes
were a logical beginning for people in countries like Russia and China,
where the Internet is still a novelty.

"They are a first step, and then you move on," said Nelson, whose work
takes him around the world. "That paradigm is happening all over the
world. Cybercafes in South Africa are very interesting now." The key to
keeping a cybercafe alive in the United States these days is to offer
more to prospective customers than simply snappy computers and superfast
T-1 lines to the Internet.

At @Alan's, a cybercafe that opened two and a half years ago in=20
Montclair, N.J., its eight computers, juice bar, coffee and light foods
are still attracting customers, said its manager, Michael Townsend. As he
spoke, a half-dozen preteen-age boys were at the computers, mostly
playing games. Nonetheless, Townsend acknowledged, "it's tough to stay in

To beef up revenues, he said, the cybercafe also offers, for a fee, of
course, computer training and Web site development.

The Internet Cafe, which opened three years ago in a former botanica in
New York's East Village, has rooted its appeal in a decidedly low-tech
d=E9cor and low-key atmosphere. The modest cybercafe is essentially a long,
narrow room that has four computers, a color printer and scanner and is
filled with comfortable tables and chairs and a small bar and television
in the back. The cafe's stereo speakers are partial to vintage Sinatra
and midtempo jazz. There is also coffee and an extensive beer list.

"This is the kind of place that we hope people would enjoy even if there
weren't any computers here," said Arthur Perley, a computer consultant
and the cafe's owner.

Saying that early cybercafes leaned on the "flash and glitz" of emerging
technologies, Perley concluded: "Once the dazzle wears off, once the
hype wears off, then the reality is sitting there. What is it?

"Oh, it's a computer sitting in the corner, and you have a cafe."


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