Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
Coffitivity lets you listen to the supposedly creativity-boosting buzz of the local coffee haunt in your home or office.
Recent brain research has shown that the moderate ambient noise of café chatter and espresso machines, in the range of about about 70 decibels, fosters creative work in a way that extreme quiet (50 decibels or less; think library quiet) does not. (Not surprisingly, high noise levels of 85 decibels—a garbage disposal, say, or road traffic—are found to be too distracting, thus reducing information processing). So perhaps it's no surprise that a new website, Coffitivity, is offering to let you stream the creativity-boosting buzz of the local coffee shop right into your home or office.
Coffitivity plays an audio feed of the optimal noise level of clinking cups and people talking. It also makes recommendations on the volume at which to overlay your own music for maximum concentration. Similar sites include Soundrown, which offers a coffee stream on its menu of ambient audio tracks. What Coffitivity also provides, though, is an attempt at community through coffee, with an active Twitter stream and an invitation to share what you’re working on when you plug in.
The company is working on a new app that’s scheduled for release in the next two weeks, so that users will be able to work from their mobile devices; eventually, the app will be tailored to cities around the world. And it turns out Seoul, Korea, is the top user city at the moment, followed by New York and London. We caught up with co-founder ACe Callwood to see what he and his team are finding in their city-by-city research.
Seoul is your biggest market. Any idea why? What are users in Seoul wanting that's different from what users in New York and London want?
We had no idea we’d be so popular in Korea. We’re actually pretty popular in Asia in general: Japan was 70 percent of our traffic for a few weeks, Taipei is on our Top Cities list, and China is a big part of our traffic as well. We think a part of our success has to do with our graphics, which are simple and allow the site to connect with many cultures irrespective of the language of our copy. Along with that, when Korean and Japanese traffic started pouring in, we did a little digging and found that there is a huge coffee culture in both Japan and Korea. At the end of the day, we did a couple of things right (albeit unintentionally) and found a really good fit.
The biggest request we get centers on language. Our fans in Seoul, for instance, tend to email the team requesting Coffitivity sounds in Korean. It’s probably best that the majority of emails come in in English, because I speak not a lick of Korean. Still, Google Translate gets a pretty heavy workout most days.
How do you see the customization by city eventually happening?
The plan is actually to lean on our fan base to help accomplish this. We'll have some guidelines for recording sounds posted to the site, which will give our users an idea of how to record raw audio in their favorite shops. If all goes as planned, they'll be able to submit audio clips for us to edit and add to the Coffitivity player. As soon as our sprint to finish the app is over, we'll have more time to go record our own new audio tracks as well.
What specific requests have you been getting from users?
Interestingly enough, accent has an effect on our users. For example, our Australian users apparently dislike American accents and would love to hear the sounds of their native coffeehouses at some point in the future. (Side note: I've yet to have an Australian correct me and say that they don't hate American accents.) Clearly we need to step on it and get some sounds from Down Under on the site ASAP.
Some cultures are requesting languages outside of their own. Several requests have come in from American cities requesting the sounds of a French or Italian café. I’d guess there’s a novelty aspect that drives those types of requests.
Lastly, we’ve had a couple emails come from expats who crave the sound of home. I’m excited to start branching out to some different cultural sounds to cater to this.
What surprises have you come across with regard to differences in coffeehouse culture—or at least the sound of it?
One of the surprising things we found is that aside from the accents and language differences, coffee shops just sound like… coffee shops. We’re experimenting a bit with audio to find some obscure regional identifiers, but for the time being we’re learning that an espresso machine in Richmond, Virginia sounds eerily similar to an espresso machine in Brooklyn. I’d even venture a guess and say Portland machines sound pretty similar as well.
I mentioned Coffitivity to a friend who works from home in North Adams, Massachusetts. She said she’d better avoid it, because she doesn’t need another excuse not to leave the house. It’s sort of the opposite experience of the user who reported—via Twitter—listening to your feed of a coffee shop while actually in a coffee shop.
We actually hear that pretty frequently. I’d say it’s a 50/50 split on people who are joking vs. those who aren’t. A lot of our users are “stuck” in the office and aren’t afforded the luxury of leaving to sit in the coffee shop for a bit. Coffitivity is obviously perfect for the situation. More interesting, on the other hand, are the freelancers or home workers. This is where your friend fits in, I’d guess. We’ve heard that some people plug in at home to drown out the sounds of noisy children or to shield from the distractions of chores and household to-do lists. Others still opt to leave the house and actually take Coffitivity with them to the coffee shop to cancel the noises of conversations creeping into personal space. As for your friend, if she does decide to dive into Coffitivity, we certainly recommend coming up for air and socializing a bit. Unfortunately, we don’t have any research offhand to substantiate the suggestion.