Using Cybercafes as a community resource

Mark Walker <> wrote this article in 1997.

The rapid growth in the use of the Internet has created new businesses, new concepts and even new words. Amongst the new pillars of the information age is the ever-increasing number of cybercafés, which have sprung up around the country. Most offer a combination of a cosy café environment, food, drinks and Internet access, charging by the hour to users who (they hope) drop in on a regular basis.

Until more public spaces such as town halls, libraries and community centres are wired up, using a cybercafé is one of the few ways that someone without Internet access can get on-line. But what can they offer to the wider community?

Working with community groups

Jo Patterson, at Manchester's Cyberia Internet Café, works with a variety of community groups, and sees it as an important part of encouraging wider use of information technology. "We are used by a local women's group to provide an introduction to the Internet. Many of the women in the group have very specific interests, or run their own businesses, so they can quickly see the benefits the 'net can offer. We also provide discounted rates for unemployed people and other groups and liaise with the council as part of their initiatives."

"We work with local schools and find lots of A-level and GCSE students coming in - either because they prefer the atmosphere of the café, or because we've got faster access than their school. We provide training services to a variety of clients, and have worked with several groups of unemployed people to develop their computer skills."

Cybercafés provide access to the World Wide Web, but also offer e-mail accounts and other services. Manchester Cyberia provides a venue for corporate events, for example, which is a major source of income. The need for diversity is echoed by Nikki Bayley at Brighton's Cybar Restaurant and Café.

Internet access ... and more

"Most Cybercafé operators have recognised that Internet access alone is not commercially viable," she explains. "It needs to be combined with a café or restaurant, as well as other services. We have a high quality restaurant - voted the best in Brighton in 1996 - which is a key part of our business and also provide a user-friendly venue for corporate clients and services such as video-conferencing. "

"We support several community initiatives, including hosting regular meetings by local arts and community groups. We provide support and training to local organisations, such as Age Concern, and are looking at ways that local schools can use our video-conferencing facilities. We firmly believe that the technology offers something for everybody and are keen to support any initiative which raises awareness of the potential benefits of IT can."

Typical users of cybercafés appear to be 15 - 35 year old men, although a concerted effort is being made to attract women users and encourage people of all ages to give it a try. Working with local community groups could be seen as a useful marketing strategy - most cybercafés are concentrating on getting first-time users through their doors and making sure they want to come back for more, so this is an ideal means of recruiting the kinds of people they don't normally reach.

A key ingredient

Until wider public access to the internet becomes available cybercafés will remain a key ingredient in encouraging a wider understanding of the benefits offered by IT. They are now beginning to appear in towns across the UK and Internet access is becoming an extension of the leisure industry in terms of bars and clubs. With increased familiarity will come a demand for greater Internet access from all parts of the community.

Using your local cybercafé is agreat way to get a taste of what the Internet can offer and community groups should be talking to local owners about how they can help each other.

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