Creating Value at Starbucks

Starbucks logo signage in an urban environment A recent article by Tom Davenport on the Harvard Business Publishing metablog has me thinking. Entitled "Is Web 2.0 Living on Thin Air?," the post asks whether all us hipster Starbucks jet-setting metrosapiens are really creating value, or just participating in a "fluffy" game of social media- powered self-delusion. I think it's the wrong question to ask, but because Davenport implicitly answers another question, this present post is vindicated and the fundamental issue at hand is revealed as both beginning and end. </Helmut "The Architect" Bakaitis>

Concordantly, allow me to ask the question that Davenport really wants to ask: Regardless of the degree of engagement in often frivolous social networking activities (i.e., poke wars, media tagging, and adding edges to the social graph just for the sake of increasing your friend count), who is creating value and in what is that value based?

Speaking as an aspiring coffee shop hipster creative, I can tell you that when I'm sitting down with a Grande Pike Place drip brew, I'm not going to be spending much time on facebook; I'm going to be spending time slicing .PSDs, writing CSS, and scripting PHP and jQuery, or my language du jour.

I remember reading a much more conservative piece by an individual I could only imagine being the type of neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie who could make a career of doling out largely vapid and condescending advice. Substantial Googling and Snopesing turned up Charles J. Sykes and the relevant quotation: "Television is not real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs." Surely enough, he's at it again. Suffice to say, this kind of polemic fails to inspire me. I guess my necktie is a little too loose for me to get the point.

It turns out that it's possible to create value darn-near anywhere these days. I'm not saying every job is implicitly mobile; vanishingly few are. But for those of us knowledge workers who produce the technology that makes everyone elses' lives richer and easier, a favorite coffee shop can, as in the vision for Starbucks envisioned by Howard Shultz, provide a comfortable "other place," a sacred venue away from the distractions of home where, on the best days, everything but the workpiece fades into the background and we're cruising along in the zone of maximum productivity.

In short, the value we produce takes the form of applications and systems that make it easier for people to do whatever it is they do. So indeed, getting overly engaged in social networking can be a big drain on personal productivity. But we shouldn't confuse such value-sapping minutiae with the value-creating work of producing sites that encourage engagement, including, yes, the creation of social media sites.