The Point of Social Media Is the Social, Not the Media

(Photo: Part of the wall of patron photos at the now-closed Lido’s Caffé.)

Last month on Chicagosphere, I wrote a popular post about how social media helped save a financially struggling local business. Unfortunately, social media wasn’t enough to save a popular Oak Park coffee shop. Lido’s Caffé, the home of a longstanding coffee klatsch that germinated on Twitter–my coffee klatsch–succumbed to the ailing economy last week. Yet in the shop’s failure is a lesson in online community–and how to translate it to real life.

Founded in mid-2008 by three fifty-something friends who wanted to open a business to retire on, Lido’s Caffé was a breath of fresh air in downtown Oak Park. The eponymous Lido Petrucci, his life partner Louise Mihalik, and friend Jan Louis, along with sneak-attack singing server Tina Pekovich, dished out more than Italian coffee, sandwiches, and gelato from dawn to far past dusk at their Marion Street café. They made their customers feel welcomed–to the point that several nearby regulars seldom ate in their own homes. It was, in fact, a feeling of family.

In September 2008, my close friend, local corporate trainer and chef Christopher Mahoney (yes, Pastry Chef Chris from this very blog), a former Oak Park resident, suggested we start a game night for our combined city and suburban friends. The same week we came upon Lido’s, which immediately felt like home to me, thanks to it’s New York-style Italian café vibe. We decided to replace games with coffee and gelato, and the next week, what came to be known as our Tuesday Night Coffee Klatsch was born.

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(Photo: A gelato case to be sorely missed.)

A month into its existence, a Twitter follower of mine, Emily Culbertson (also of Chicago Carless fame), sent me a curious tweet: “Was that you at Lidos when I was just in there buying a banana?” It was, we met, and from then on the coffee klatsch was shouted out on Twitter, every week like clockwork. Tuesday nights at 6:30, Lido’s Caffé. In 16 months we barely missed a week. Sometimes we were a dozen people and sometimes just a pair, but in that time probably 50 people came through to share caffeine and real-life community with us, most of them organized from Twitter, then herded to the café in weekly emails.

I’ve written a good deal about our group here on Carless. For some reason, at Lido’s we felt safe enough to share the most bizarre and amazing stories amongst each other. (Read for yourself, for example, about the evening of the cocoa condoms, or why you should never initiate a high-speed chase from the Wisconsin police.)

I guess we always knew it wouldn’t last. Marketing was never strong at Lido’s. I blogged about Lido’s on Gapers Block and created a Twitter account for the café, but it was never put to any great use. As you might expect, there was never a Facebook page, either. The economy–coupled with the inertia of Oak Parkers to have their evening fun outside the village–eventually dealt the death blow. As 2010 began, the cafe announced its impending closure.

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(Photo: Lido’s counter in 2008.)

As a testament to the power of Lido’s to foster community–both online and offline–immediately, college students who worked at the café and several interested regulars mounted a fundraising effort to help Lido, Louise, and Jan make the rent. But the proceeds from local indie bands and ad-hoc art auctions aren’t enough to stave off a persistent landlord who isn’t in the mood to play Let’s Make a Deal.

We held our last Tuesday Night tweetup at Lido’s on January 5th. Petrucci cried when we gave him a card signed by us all. In it, we thanked him for the real-world warm welcome that helped a disparate group of people, many of whom had never met in person before meeting on a Lido’s Tuesday night, become–in the best and most honest sense of the word–friends.

To our great surprise, the Oak Park Leaves newspaper chronicled our final Lido’s tweetup, as well as the reasons behind the café’s closure. And with that, the “Cheers of cafés” closed, and 16 months of community building may have gone with it.

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(Photo: Pastry Chef Chris, grinning from ear to ear, with regular and occasional coffee klatsch participants.)

And that’s when we all realized the miracle that Lido’s had wrought for us. No, sadly, social media was not put to good use by Lido’s owners in order to save our beloved weekly home-away-from-home. Instead, Lido’s had given us a safe haven for turning electronic Twitter acquaintances into real-life friends on a regular basis. Every month, sometimes every week, Lido’s Caffé was the catalyst for alchemizing the virtual into the real. We wouldn’t have been so emboldened to so regularly take that step into the real world with each other without the home we were given by Lido, Louise, and Jan.

We’re an itinerant coffee group now. But thanks to the community building of the past 16 months, we remain a group, regardless. We even had newcomers at our final coffee klatsch at Lido’s. And this week, we had newcomers again in our temporary January home, Noble Tree Coffee in Lincoln Park (2444 North Clark Street.) I’m sure we’ll bounce around a few more times before we decide on a permanent home, and I know we’ll never recapture the magic that was Lidos.

But we’re proud to realize that we’re the moral of the story. There’s a miracle in social media. The miracle is the people on the other end of the keyboard from you. The ones you’ve tweeted and direct messaged forever but whose faces you’d never recognize on the street. Don’t miss an opportunity to meet them in person. Create those opportunities, if you can. Because the point of social media is the social, not the media. Media comes and media goes. But if you’re lucky, social endures.

May you be as lucky as we were.

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