Of Coffee Shops and Parking Lots: Considering Matters of Space and Place in the Use of Public Wi-Fi
Wireless local area networks – or Wi-Fi networks – are proliferating in some societies. Our interest in this exploratory essay is to illustrate how ostensibly free, publicly-accessible Wi-Fi requires users to apply conventional understandings of space and place (particularly commercial spaces and places) as they make sense of some ambiguities about proper use in those places. We show, through an examination of the metaphorical terms used to describe Wi-Fi, how spatial notions are employed in an attempt to define ownership of the signal and rights to its use. We consider how place-behaviors require evaluation of legitimacy of users in public places and of hospitality of Wi-Fi providers. We observe that commercial interests underpin notions of ownership, legitimacy and hospitality of social actors in public places like coffee shops and parking lots. As researchers considering matters of participation in virtual places, we must first have some appreciation for the normative constraints and conventions that govern the commercial public places in which users access “free” Wi-Fi.