Feedback on the "Thinkerspace"

March 28, 2013

I asked Hacker News for their opinion of a “thinkerspace,” a maker space for those interested in math, music, and conversation. It would be a modern-day salon — a place to meet for study, good conversation, and a slow non-technological pace.

My original description of the thinkerspace was intentionally rather vague and included a freeform field for additional thoughts. I got plenty of feedback, but first here is what I described the space having:

  • comfortable reading chairs
  • library of math books and classics
  • fountain pens
  • cozy lights
  • a piano and library of scores
  • blackboards
  • tea
  • painting supplies
  • bookbinding

The results are interesting. My poll got 9300 views and 380 answers. About two-thirds of respondents, 259 to be specific, said they would become members if there was a thinkerspace in their city. This is a 2.8% conversion rate, which is right in line with the mythical 2-3% “average” conversion rate across all web sites.

To get an idea of how viable the idea would be, I asked the maximum monthly membership fee people would be willing to pay. Here are the results, rounded to the nearest five dollars.

thinkerspace fees

thinkerspace fees

Since those are the maximums, we can calculate the total monthly revenue at different choices of monthly fee. Looks like $50 per month is the best fee. This calculation assumes (probably incorrectly) that people’s price sensitivity is the same across their various cities, but it gives us a rough idea.

thinkerspace revenue

thinkerspace revenue

However it’s not all rainbows and puppies. There were several criticisms of the idea – everything from “fuk no” all the way to article-length diatribes. These criticisms were very helpful, especially because many of the themes were repeated. It’s clear that the thinkerspace, if it ever exists, absolutely needs to avoid certain things.

Objection 1: Pretension

The P-word is the #1 worry. Whether it is the anachronistic trappings of “flouncy fountain pens” or a crowd of “try-hard pseudo-intellectuals,” people are sickened imagining the thinkerspace becoming a breeding ground of pretentious douchebaggery. It needs to work hard to maintain its seriousness while cutting out the all-talk, no-walk crowd. One respondent said the space needs to make sure it doesn’t try to confer prestige. Keep it a meeting place for friends who are curious and want to talk and learn together.

Blowhards pose a real threat to the space, at least if it’s no more than a pay-to-play conversation club. Although one person suggested “charge enough to keep out the riff-raff,” I don’t think that fees alone can keep the company scintillating. Perhaps the space needs probationary periods for members, where the existing crowd can vote out obnoxious newcomers. At the very least it needs a low-key name.

Objection 2: Redundancy

“How is this any better than X?” where X is “my house” or “the public library” or “a cafe.” That depends.

Your house is drab, lonely and distracting. Possibly. If not, then enjoy your house; you’re successful and we envy you.

The public library has books of limited specialization. You won’t find sophisticated math books. You will find people playing around on facebook and homeless people. There aren’t usually blackboards or food.

A cafe is usually full of distracting chatter and zombified people who are staring at glowing rectangles and don’t want to talk to you. If you don’t periodically buy things then you are unwelcome. The only blackboards you will find are covered with the daily food specials, not ideas and equations.

Where things get more complicated is how a thinkerspace compares with a university department or library. These are the original thinkerspaces after all, and they have developed effective ways to weed out triflers. Perhaps this is in some ways a weakness of universities. Attending a university certainly demonstrates dedication, but can filter people with a genuine interest in a subject who have other things in their lives preventing them from the fully focused pursuits of academia.

I am undecided whether a thinkerspace allows broad-minded and otherwise-engaged people a respite from their everyday affairs and a meeting of disinterested serious thought, or whether it is nothing more than a cesspool of second-rate wannabe academics. In fact it makes me question my own self and my unceasing uneasy interest in math.

Objection 3: Too much/little socializing

Yes, both of these opposite concerns came up. People are concerned about being bothered while deep in the middle of a thought. They are also concerned about appearing to be busier than they are and not being approachable. The idea of musical instruments was worrisome. Will the jangling of somebody practicing piano interfere with somebody’s reading?

The answer is to define places and times for things. Designate a social common room for people who would like to be interrupted. Being there tacitly invites diversion.

Also designate a “Diogenes Club room.” Many people referenced this fictional club from Sherlock Holmes in their responses to my survey:

“There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town. No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one. Save in the Stranger’s Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, allowed, and three offences, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion. My brother was one of the founders, and I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere.”

Practicing piano and generally playing music could be prohibited during certain times.

Objection 4: Overspecialization

Why music and math? Why not philosophy and poetry and psychology?

Yes, I agree, why not? I mentioned math and music because I am fond of them, but I am not averse to members studying and discussing other branches of knowledge.

Objection 5: Relevance of work

Other people said they wouldn’t use the space without wifi, as their work programming and using the internet is more relevant and productive than any offline thing would be for them. There is a danger here. I honestly think that using computers and smart phones in public makes people antisocial and boring. Yes you too. When you stare at your phone in a restaurant you are being rude and poor company. However, real meaningful work does happen on the computer. Why should we deprive visitors at the thinkerspace from the industrious and productive thinking that comes from programming and communicating online?

Let’s let people have their cake and eat it too. Here’s what I propose: a public downstairs cafe with wifi, and an upstairs computer-free, cell-free private club. If you’re working on your startup or checking email do so in the lower level. This is also where you can get tea, coffee, and snacks. If you’re a member you can climb the stairs to a humane atmosphere of conversation, live music, and ideas.

Objection 6: Monotony

Will a haphazard daily drifting of unfocused thinkers be monotonous and uninspiring? Although I think people might self-organize into interest groups with recurring meetings, the space might also plan events to keep attendance compelling. People suggested that the space could host guest lectures on various topics. Maybe host workshops too on tricky games like chess, go, and bridge.

Similar Spaces

I got several recommendations for the Mechanic’s Institute Library in San Francisco. Since I am currently visiting SF, I went and checked it out. It really is outstanding. It’s a large private library and intellectual center. It includes a chess club and meeting rooms in a stately building with a winding staircase. So yeah, I guess San Francisco is already covered. Just organize study groups and use the Mechanic’s Institute.

Another suggestion was “rationality dojos.” I must admit the term connotes awkward nineteen-year-old Ayn Rand fans, but I’ll keep an open mind.

Finally, the following hacker spaces are claimed to be similar: LVL1, Paragraph Workspace, theOffice, Sandbox Suites, and One Alfred Place.