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Drinking in the madness of social media The pompous asses who populate our public discourse could be straight from a 17th-century coffee house

A Midnight Modern Conversation: a party at St John's Coffee House by William Hogarth. Credit: Corbis via Getty

A Midnight Modern Conversation: a party at St John's Coffee House by William Hogarth. Credit: Corbis via Getty

October 1, 2019   5 mins

It’s time for some time travel. You’re walking down a London thoroughfare in about 1700. From a building nearby you can hear laughter, both derisive and uproarious, mixed with shouting, hacking coughs, swearing and occasional weeping. You push open the heavy oak door and enter. It’s crowded, people squashed together on long wooden benches set out on jagged floorboards. Everyone is talking, everyone is drinking — but there is no alcohol. The air is heavy with the scents of tobacco smoke, sweat and coffee grounds.

Only, wait a moment. Has there been a glitch in the space-time continuum? Because under that periwig over there, eyes wide, gesturing wildly with her pipe, isn’t that Carole Cadwalladr? What about those two raggamuffins who just burst in breathlessly, greeted by a massed cry of “What news have you?” and shouting the latest on Walpole and the Act of Settlement, then rushing out again; they may be a little besmirched and ragged, but aren’t they Beth Rigby and Laura Kuenssberg?

Ranting in opposite corners, jabbing their fingers accusingly across the room at each other, that must be Kevin Maguire and Rod Liddle. And the urchin with his nose pressed up against the window, stamping his foot and raving that everything and everybody inside is awful and simultaneously demanding to be let in: yes, it’s little Owen Jones.

It strikes me that the era of the London coffee house and our own times are linked — both were/are milieus formed out of unique cultural and technological circumstances. Both are characterised by novelties in the means of communication and consumption that reorganised the public sphere with disconcerting rapidity and sent everything and indeed everybody up in the air, leading to howls of outrage, denunciation, and calls for regulation. Both are very, very shouty.

The London coffee houses were the result of a blend of innovations. As trade boomed, coffee and a taste for it were imported. The first house opened in 1652, serving up what was described as a “bitter Mohammedan gruel” — 15 years later there were almost a hundred, by the close of the century an estimated six times that number. At the same time, cheap mass printing became possible, with the first examples of what we would recognise to be newspapers being produced, and sold, much more cheaply.

In 1711 The Spectator launched, with a stated aim to include women among its readers and bring ‘philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools, and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffee–houses’  — hence the name of the Spectator’s modern-day gossipy blog. All the newspapers fed into and fed from the opinions of the coffee house in a perfect symbiotic relationship.

Education became more widespread as the middle class expanded and got more prosperous. And suddenly, everybody had an opinion and somewhere to read it, speak it or counterblast someone else’s. The low price of admission — a one-off, one-penny entrance fee — meant almost anyone could enter and discuss politics freely. In 1726, the visiting Swiss nobleman César de Saussure wrote, in a tone of scandalised amusement, that “workmen habitually begin the day by going to coffee-rooms to read the latest news”.

Unsurprisingly, these changes sparked an opposing uproar, with concerns about seditious behaviour and inflammatory language (you can see where this is going). King Charles II attempted to close down the coffee houses by royal proclamation in 1675, and at about the same time came the notorious ‘Women’s Petition’ against the “excessive use of that newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee“. Both were unsuccessful.

After a rocky couple of decades, the coffee houses lost their shock value and became an established part of London life — no longer actively contentious, though never entirely respectable. What did for them in the end was another shift in technology and consumption: the arrival of tea, which unlike coffee you could prepare yourself and drink at home, as well as more substantial and reliable newspapers.

I think that right now in 2019 we’re at a comparable stage to those times, possibly more akin to the earlier, outraged petitioning and royally-proclaiming phase of the coffee house era.

It’s astonishing to think that widespread internet access in the Western world only occurred 20 years ago. The apparent ubiquitousness of Twitter in our public discourse (apparent, as only 24% of the UK population use it at all, a figure worth remembering) is even more recent. We are newbies to all this, taken very much by surprise.

I can’t think of a scenario from 20th-century science fiction — and frankly I’ve watched and read rather a lot of that — that came anywhere close to an accurate prediction of Twitter or social media in general. It’s rather sweet to see again episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from the Nineties on Netflix, made just a few years before this explosion, in which the characters share information by walking to each other’s workplaces and handing each other iPads. They live in a permanently fraught state of contentious politicking but — incredibly to our eyes — they never worry, or have to worry, about gossip, rumours and fake news, despite being surrounded by computers. The social media revolution, like the coffee houses, caught everybody napping.

The world has never been more peaceful, prosperous and tolerant, and yet we obsess about race, gender and inequality like never before. Everything is related in exactly the same tone of urgency and importance, which makes it impossible to substantiate what is actually urgent or important. In an impossibly crowded and loud public sphere everything, of necessity, has to be loud or sentimental to claim attention.

The attention paid by sinking legacy media outlets to mini-controversies on Twitter is fascinating — the so-called ‘Black Ariel’ effect, whereby a handful of tweets, or even a single tweet, is drummed up in an online headline as a major outrage, causing more clicks, more heat, more emotion. Much ado about literally nothing at all.

You don’t have to squint very hard to see the perukes on everybody’s heads, and there’s a distinct whiff of ground arabica beans.

But the coffee houses became a normal part of the scene and faded away. At the moment, in the heat of the Twitter uproar, we can’t imagine the same thing will happen — or how — to the current mode of our public sphere, but it almost undoubtedly will. Censorship is one possibility. Even today Chinese politicians don’t have to worry about people tweeting mean things about them on Twitter, as the Party went boldly on past the point where Charles II retreated, and blocked the whole damn thing in 2009.

My hope is that, just as with the coffee houses, we’ll find a way to acclimatise and muddle through. The current calls for more civility in discourse from public figures, often made hilariously by the very worst offenders on this count, are to my thinking on a hiding to nothing. All that has changed really is that people can now say to your virtual face the kind of thing they were shouting at your face on their television screen in 2006.

Perhaps a younger generation of politicians and public figures who have never known different, who can’t remember a time when people didn’t have an outlet to be rude or horrible to them directly, will just shrug and ignore that. When you get past a certain level of renown maybe turning off your notifications from people you don’t know is the best idea.

Meanwhile there’s some joy to be taken from the madness, maybe. Maybe there’s some amusement to be had from the great pompous asses of the day, the Bercows, Linekers and Graylings. We look at Hogarth’s coffee house scenes, and we don’t see the sturm und drang that surrounded that period. Perhaps people in the 24th century will look at depictions of 2019 and feel affection and a certain nostalgia for a lost age of rollicking, spluttering and pretended outrage.

Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.


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