Sunday, March 9, 2008

on social energy

Working on a project these days that has me thinking a lot about energy. At my last job, that would probably have been a sentence about Casella Waste Systems and the patented processes of energeneration. But this is a new month, a new creative agency, a new outlook. And so, with the days of Vermont-based, resource management behind me, I open up a new chapter on the very idea of energy. Let's call it the subtle movement from natural resources to social energy.

This time, I'm looking at the almighty need for the afternoon buzz. Why do college kids gravitate towards coffeehouses? Or do they at all? Is there another source for regenerating personal energy altogether? Basically, what constitutes and what drives energy for college-aged kids?

I generated a handful of hypotheses before really looking into it. And when I say "really looking into it", I mean doing what is known in the Plannerworld as "Ghetto Research" in which I spent the afternoon around the UW campus, hanging out at a couple of Starbucks (and one convenience store - a sore subject and fodder perhaps for a diatribe of its own) and asking students their thoughts on the subject at hand.

Here's what I learned: much like the chicken and the egg, I couldn't get a clear answer as to whether or not kids cam
e out to Starbucks a) to hang out, and thus, being at a coffeehouse, ordered the house special; or b) felt they needed an afternoon coffee, and thus, with an awareness of caffeine deficiency, went to the nearest green mermaid shoppe. Put more simply, did students want a place to hang out or did they want a coffee?

To add a twist of purported advanced thinking to the question, is today's college student energized by a chemical or by socialization? A few of the kids I spoke to were not drinking coffee drinks at all, but either water or tea. However, regardless of what was in the cup, I heard many times over that the energy came from the conversations they were having with friends. It was the engagement that created the energy. And so one would conclude that the answer to the question of energy source would be socialization, not chemical.

And yet...
They were in a Starbucks. And if socialization were all that were needed to avoid this a
fternoon lull, the
y could just as easily been at a bookstore, a record shop, a street corner, a falafel stand, etc. But as I walked down the street, those businesses were practically empty. The Starbucks was most decidedly not. It was overflowing with not enough seating to supply the demand. There was a line you joined within millimeters of opening the door.

So what's the answer? Where do I fall out on this subject? It doesn't take a scientist to intuit the impact a stimulant has on the body's system (although it does take one to systematically prove it). And so ignoring the obvious effect an afternoon coffee would have on a 20 yr old's chemistry would be folly. At the same time (and a sociologist or anthropologist could speak with much more clarity on the appropriate theory in place here), the social phenomenon of eneregeneration (Arlene, I couldn't resist), meaning, regenerating energy from a natural resource, is clearly at play here. The environment that Starbucks and many other coffeehouses have historically provided (e.g. plush chairs, warm wooden floors, gentle mood lighting, perhaps a couch or a fireplace...) create the opportunity to sit comfortably face to face with a friend and connect. It is within that moment of connection that, for many people, the batteries get recharged. The more lively the conversation, the more energized the bodies engaged.

Of course, I always found a nice nap works too.


Anonymous said...

Pithy, yet substantive.


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Jill Franklin said...

Your views on life are interesting.

the thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own, and are not necessarily shared by my friends, family, or employer. (though they very well might be...)