Peter Small & Virtual Cafés

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POSTED: July 12, 2016

In 1999 Peter Small wrote a book called Magical A-Life Avatars which took the then-popular Lingo programming language and used it to create virtual cafés. He did this both as a way of teaching Lingo and as a method of writing a book about teaching Lingo. He continued to develop this idea in two subsequent books: The Entrepreneurial Web and The Ultimate Game of Strategy.

In his first book Small described these cafés as small applications viewed with a Macromedia Director projector. In his later books he generalised them into a particular method of using emails and discussion boards. From this later perspective Virtual Cafés offer a way of re-conceiving a chain of communications with the idea of using communication to build shared knowledge. Of course, these cafés do not really exist. Instead, in Small’s own words, “the café represents your interface to a selected number of people. It is also a convenient way to visualize a solution in Hilbert space. The people in the café are the dimensions of your solution”. (Small, 2000, p343)

I participated in a café for the original book, and found it a very useful way of organising online discussion that had an end-point in mind; in other words where a group wanted to make a decision or arrive at a conclusion rather than just chat. So, how does this work in practice, then, and what benefits does it offer? Peter and I knew of each other through discussions and arguments that we had had on several Lingo and Director related mailing lists, and he invited me to take part in an experimental café that he intended to use as a major resource while we wrote Magical A-Life Avatars.

He placed me and some other people at an imaginary table in the café and then gave each table a topic to discuss. He wandered around the café, dropping into discussions and sometimes shaping them by adding new information or passing ideas from one table to another. He used this process to shape the content of the book, to order the content into a narrative, and finally to actually write the book itself. In this final stage he passed chunks of text to the various tables with requests to decide whether the chunk made sense, whether the analogies and metaphors he used clarified the ideas or made them harder to understand, and whether the writing made interesting reading.

In the final book he took this further and literally began with no more than a simple hypothesis. He started with a question and the confidence that came from his previous successful experiments. The process of expanding this, and developing an online project to test it, took place entirely within the tables of the virtual café that he set up for this purpose. In effect he wrote an entire book using a completely bottom-up approach with an end result that surprised even him.

Shorn of the café metaphor this process involves creating a discussion group, creating a very specific set of topics inside the group, and then assigning everybody to one or two of these topics with a clear brief and a clear timetable. The discussion thus becomes goal-oriented in a way that most discussion groups do not. People can only communicate directly with the other people in the topic groups they have joined. In terms of the metaphor, people in the café can only talk with the other people at their table (or tables) and those tables have clearly defined tasks. Peter, as the host, moves from table to table passing on information if he feels it will help the discussion, and occasionally moving people from one table to another. He points out that “you can have multiple existences, you can join in several group discussions at once”. (Small, 2000, p340)

This may seem obvious but he carefully distinguishes between sitting a several tables at once and having a large free-form chat. In the former you sit with different groups, each of which focuses on a single topic. Even if two people sit at several tables the rules state that they do not bring ideas or opinions with them from one table to another. Each table has its own focus and, in Peter’s view, each version of at each table should act as an autonomous clone. The me at table 2 should not know what the me at Table 7 has got up to, or what he knows. We can think of this as a gambit to facilitate focus, similar to Edward de Bono’s hat strategy. It seems silly at the beginning but it delivers results at the end.

We should notice that this process has a benign dictator: the author or editor. The process does not offer unlimited democracy. Instead it offers people the chance to participate in a project that has an instigator who acts as the ultimate judge of the value of the discussions, and makes the ultimate decisions about how the results of the discussions at each table will be used. We can see this as an important extension of the café metaphor. If I rent a real café in Helsinki for a birthday party then I get to decide whether or not the guest will wear fancy dress, and I get to decide who will sit at what table. The guest recognise this as the nature of the deal, because they understand that if they later invite me to their party then they will get to set the rules in exactly the same way.

Implicit in the virtual café strategy, then, lies a recognition that the task at hand forms an optional activity that we can volunteer to join and volunteer to leave. Because of the optional nature of the task, the host – the person who conceived the task in the first place – can invite us and can then subsequently eject us. (“Host” might also mean “hosts”, of course, in cases where two or more people conceived an idea and decided to create a café to pursue it.)

We accept the role of dictator (which we may more politely choose to call “author” or “editor”) because we recognise it as temporary, and we recognise that we can assume that role at any time in a project that we have devised. We can pass the role around as we create new projects, and we can even pass the role around within projects if we wish.

I thought when I sat in Peter Small’s virtual café that the strategy was simple and effective, and very clever. I still think that. I think we might adopt it for many creative purposes.


Peter Small (1999), Magical A-Life Avatars. Greenwich CT: Manning
Peter Small (2000), The Entrepreneurial Web. London: Pearson Education
Peter Small (2001), The Ultimate Game of Strategy. London: Pearson Education