Asked to pin down the difference between the atmosphere of a cybercafe and that of a traditional coffee bar, Cyberia's Eva Pascoe comes straight out with the harsh truth: people who frequent cybercafes don't give a toss about their appearance. "With the technological generation," Pascoe explains, "it's all about what is going on on the inside, not what you see on the outside. You only have to look at all these new new media departments in advertising agencies - the people in those departments are the worst-looking people in the whole company. Their heads are in their computers and they don't care about what they look like - when they go shopping they buy a new modem, not new clothes. Go to somewhere like Soho and the cafes are places to be seen. This is true of Cyberia to an extent, but we're dealing with people who are inherently into the technology and who aren't superficial. I'm not being judgmental. It's just the way it is."
To be fair to Pascoe and her partner, Gene Teare, Cyberia is more than just a Mecca for the sartorially challenged. Over the course of a week hanging out there, I encountered the full gamut of sociological types, from Gap-sporting twenty-somethings merrily downloading pictures of netbabes (Twin Peaks' Sherilyn Fenn seemed a popular choice) to a gaggle of teenage girls emailing their holiday beaux in far-off climes.
Cyberia is a barely-decorated street-level space where 50-year-old gardening club members, 40-year-old advertising execs, 30-year-old nurses, 20-year-old hairdressers and still-living-with-their-mums teenagers sit shoulder to shoulder basking in the joys of the Internet. And that means it's the cool hang-out for technologically-curious people in London.
Despite burgeoning competition, Cyberia is widely recognised as Britain's most successful cybercafe chain. The Whitfield Street Cyberia in Soho still represents Pascoe and Teare's flagship operation, but the course they're plotting is for world domination. Easy, you might think. After all, they have a tried and tested formula - the 18 months since Whitfield Street opened is a long time in the history of cybercafes - that is successfully being played out in four other UK franchises. So the Cyberia team clearly knows how to replicate its initial success, a trick which, try as they might, few of the would-be imitators and rivals have yet learned. Furthermore, the chain already has an overseas link. Early feedback from the just-opened Paris branch in the chic surroundings of the Pompidou Centre is good. Except... nobody had bargained on the French being so, well, French.
"Just because you give them a modem," Pascoe points out, "it doesn't make them American." It turns out that contrary to the global, nationality-transcending spirit of the Internet (the single currency of technology, if you like), French cybercafe-goers are an entirely different breed to British ones. That doesn't faze Pascoe. Instead, it gives her a new facet of the Internet life to be fascinated by.
To share the fascination I have to fight my way through the nightmarish maze of the Barbican's Electronic Commerce Show to Cyberia's mobile online stand. When I finally get to meet Eva Pascoe, I'm struck by how incredibly out of place she looks. Imagine sending Michelle Pfeiffer to a convention of chartered accountants and you can just about picture how far removed the chic, blonde Ms Pascoe is from the sea of ill-fitting grey suits that surrounds her. "It's incredible," she says with a wry smile. "People see a woman at one of these events and they just presume you're the receptionist. I don't mind. It's just a little scary."
Not to go on about the clothes issue, but that's the first major difference Pascoe brings up about Paris. According to Pascoe, French nerds are chic. "I think it's a genetic thing with the French," she laughs. Then, as is her wont, she moves effortlessly from culture to technology; the second thing is that the French have Minitel, a system that, however antiquated, is not to be underestimated in terms of technological repercussions. "To begin with I thought that, because of Minitel, the French would have already grasped the concept of online promotion, advertising, et cetera, and that graduating to the Internet would be a tiny step forward for them. But I was wrong. Minitel is an incredibly disempowering system and unfortunately most French people are under the misconception that the Internet is simply Minitel with colour. As a result, it's only very recently that things like Virtual Baguette (a Web site for art students) have come along - its anti-government, anti-corporate stance is the closest thing to the spirit of cyberspace as we know it."
On top of this, Pascoe also had to consider France's indigenous cafe culture. In a city where every street corner is strewn with espresso drinkers, the Cyberia had to be distinctive enough to stand out from the mêlée. As a result, the low-key interiors of the British franchises were swapped for what Pascoe describes as "something more Blade Runner-ish." Designed by Bernard Blauel, architect of the German stock-exchange building in Frankfurt, Cyberia France hums with "technology is our raison d'être" vibes.
And it seems to be working. The buzz may spread further thanks to a little media coup during the city-crippling strikes last year. Cyberia Paris played accidental host to the leader of a 5,000-strong student faction that stormed the Pompidou. "Journalists were banned from the place but this guy was able to make a report by IRC. The incredible thing was that the chief of police was right there with us but because he didn't understand the technology he just let the guy carry right on typing. His demands, which by the way I thought were total drivel, made it to the front of Liberation the next day." At the last count there were five other cybercafes in Paris, but most of them are on the coffee-and-a-bit-of-basic-training level. Pascoe's Pompidou dreams are more ambitious: she sees it as a chance to push the limits of art and technology, as "an opportunity to do something that we were never able to do here." She hopes "that our being there will provide a synergy between the artists and cyberspace. Look at video as a medium; originally it was just about sex and blue movies, then it matured into an art medium of its own. But that involved somebody putting money and enthusiasm into it."
Japan promises to be just as interesting. Cyberia already has a near-cult following there on the back of some television work that they did last year. "We did lots of programmes with Fuji TV on a series called Revolution 8," says Pascoe. "It's a very underground, spooky, weird young people's series, and the guy we did it with, Ryo Inouchi, ended up designing our cyberclothing. Then we did a number of things for NHK which is Japan's biggest TV station . The programme that we did last Christmas - short clips from clubs, art exhibitions and so on - was watched by 16 million people."
For all this televisual softening up, the opening of Cyberia's Tokyo cybercafe this spring probably represents the team's most challenging move yet. The good news is that, despite being a virtually invisible net presence - Western search tools pick up only a tiny amount of Japanese-originated material because of the language problem - there are almost a million people online in Japan, and technology is a huge scene there. "I wouldn't say that the Japanese are necessarily ahead of us," says Pascoe, "but they are more open-minded - almost as open-minded as the Americans. Their only limitation is the language. Beyond that they're really optimistic about cyberspace, they just assume the future will be great."
As in France, however, there are enormous cultural differences to be taken on board. For a start, the Japanese have no real tradition of cafe-culture. And when they go to a cafe, they talk about business. The very idea of a groovy hangout is probably enough to send most Japanese running. Someone has already set up an Internet cafe in Tokyo on a very similar model to the British Cyberias so, in order to set themselves apart, the cafe in Tokyo will have to be uncharacteristically "up-market and futuristic, lots of glass and wood and lighting details." Finally, the Internet's anti-establishment and anti-government attitude sits very uneasily with such a nationalistic people.
"Don't get me wrong," says Pascoe, "I think they're incredibly interested in the Net. They will definitely do something different with it. There seems to be no concept of self-expression or mumbling on inconsequentially and, as a result, virtually the only Web sites that exist all relate to big companies promoting music or something. The other thing is that, because they don't have that regime of individual opinion or the confidence to say what they think, they can't begin to get their heads round browsing or newsgroups - particularly things like flaming. They're so fucking polite I think they'd rather commit hara-kiri than flame somebody online."
Another issue that Japan raises is gender. Pascoe operates on the basic premise that the "emphasis on communication, over and above that of technology itself" makes Cyberia the perfect environment for breaking down the gender barriers in computing. In an impressively right-on misreading of the market, Cyberia was originally intended as a women-only venture. But that didn't last. "To be honest, I thought that all the boy nerds would be hooked up at home and they wouldn't need us. But we had this incredibly fast connection, and they couldn't wait to use our equipment. Actually we really liked that. I mean, at the end of the day we're all nerds ourselves..." So Cyberia went from being notionally 100% female to being really 95% male overnight, be-fore settling down at a comfortable half and half.
Japan, though, looks different; the Japanese audience looks to be made up almost entirely of women, which seems extraordinary in a culture so dominated by men. When Pascoe advertised for cyberhosts in Tokyo, every single application, without exception, was from a woman. Pascoe's explanation? "Only the women travel and, therefore, only the women speak English, which is crucial. The men go straight from school into a job and never leave the country.
"The principal thing that we offer women, be it here or in Japan, is empowerment," says Pascoe. "Being computer literate is a real bonus in the job market these days and it's one of the few ways to have an edge on the competition, be they men or women." And after Tokyo? Where else but South Park, San Francisco, home of Wired US. "I'm interested in San Francisco because that's where it all started. It would be interesting for us to tap the potential there and also to see what the English/American clash would look like. I think that if we opened in San Francisco we would be in a good position to capitalise on the culture we have, but using the tools straight from the oven. Then we can feed that technical stuff into all the other cafes." And it doesn't stop there. This year will also see Cyberia cafes opening in Berlin and Lisbon, and there may be more elsewhere. "Once we decide to open somewhere," says Teare, "it really doesn't take us long. I mean, look how quickly it all started in London."
Cafe cultureAs it turns out, that's very quickly. Once Gene Teare and Eva Pascoe decided one night in their kitchen to go ahead and do it, it took them only a few months. But the Cyberia tale starts a little before that fateful evening. "I discovered the Internet for myself around seven years ago when I was a researcher at the University of London," says Pascoe. "My PhD was all about human-computer interaction and the way people make decisions using computers. The whole thrust of the thing was how to simplify complex systems; that meant that I had essentially to live in cyberspace because all of the specialists on that subject were not in England, so the only way that we could communicate was to use the Internet. It was a pretty painful process, to be honest."
But then she got hooked up at home. "I soon realised that what I did from there was a completely different story. You know, you're in your social surroundings and suddenly your computer stops being like a work tool. It was all very experimental. I dragged my computer from the university lab - which was very dark and murky - and put it into my bright, sunny bedroom with candles all around and suddenly I realised - this is it, this is where I think people would want to have their computers. It's like the telephone, in a way," she continues. "It's the same piece of equipment that you use both at home and at work, but the purpose is different because of the context in which you use it."
"I don't think that there's a drastic difference between home computing and what you do at Cyberia - except it's more social here. I suppose you could compare the whole thing to home cinema - it's possible to watch movies at home now, but people still choose to go to the cinema - it's a social ritual. Also Cyberia kind of acts like an industry club, a place where people can chat and swap information about what's happening. It works - primarily, I think, because the Internet is about aspiration, about doing things differently. It suggests change at a time when everything else just seems to be grinding to a halt."
Pascoe's original intention was to provide some kind of clubby, cafe-like space. She has a pathological dislike of pubs and fantasised about creating the sort of cafe atmosphere that she had been brought up with in Poland. "In the cafes there, you just sit and have a cake and a coffee. They also tend to be divided by interest - artists will go to one, engineers to a different one; even policemen have their own cafe - so the whole idea behind a cybercafe was that people interested in technology would come here, and that's exactly what happened."
Except for a few glitches along the way. Pascoe and partners - no experts in catering - somehow thought that one measly, game-show-style coffee machine would cover things perfectly well for the first couple of months. Big mistake. "The day after we opened the whole world came for coffee and I remember spending the whole day rushing around trying to buy a proper coffee machine - I just couldn't believe that we would have so many people."
The truth of the matter is that the Pascoe posse badly misread the market. "I thought that the only people who would be interested in Cyberia would be people like me - academics or ex-academics - people who were generally into cyberspace and virtual communities." But her staff - recruited from highly credible clubs like Megatripolis - brought a whole new culture with them. "It wasn't my culture," says Pascoe. "I'm the wrong generation. I mean, I love clubs and I'd go trance-dancing anytime, but I just employed these people because I thought they would be fun and good communicators. As it turned out they soon brought all their friends to the cafe and suddenly I was sitting in a daytime Megatripolis."
In an attempt to keep the costs down and "encourage everybody to have a go," Pascoe did all the Internet and Web training single-handed for the first six months - during which time her vision of an online hangout for her friends morphed into the most fashionable cafe in '90s London. Pascoe and her team were struggling to work out exactly what the cyberpunters' requirements were. "For me, the biggest turn on about the Internet was being able to get hold of academic research that had been published the day before, but that obviously wasn't a turn-on for the rest of society. We discovered that for the first six months the most popular thing that people played around with on the Net was virtual frog dissection. People instinctively pick up on things that they can't do in ano-ther medium."
The key to Cyberia's success, though, has been to offer access to technology to first-time frog-cutters while still attracting what Pascoe refers to as "top nerds".
"Technology is changing all the time," says Pascoe, "so even experienced surfers come down to Cyberia to learn new stuff." New clients come in; old clients stay. Cyberia and Easynet,
the Internet service provider which hooked the place up, feel they can happily encourage people to get access at home without any clash of interest. If anything, people have more queries once they are hooked up at home than they did before - and where better to go for friendly advice and entertainment than Cyberia?
If wider Internet access is good for Cyberia, it could be good for Internet cafes in general; certainly a lot are being set up. Pascoe's happy about that, too. "I think it's great that so many places are starting up. We don't particularly think of ourselves as a chain in a McDonalds kind of a way. There's scope for cooperation and enough customers for everybody."
This love-your-fellow-cybercafe-owner thing comes up a lot. Anthony Wilson - the man who set up Factory Records, put out the first-ever CD-only release and tried to pioneer DAT as a music format - recently helped set up Wet, Manchester's first cyberbar. He is guilelessly enthusiastic about Cyberia's opening of a potential rival. "There's plenty of room for everyone," says Wilson, idly tweaking the Factory Records Web site as he talks. Gavin Shepherd, owner of what could be seen as Cyberia's principal competition, the Internet Cafe in London's Buckingham Palace Road, says, "We don't consider ourselves so much competition as complementary with one another. Cyberia is quite techno in its approach; we're trying to do something a bit more accessible." After all that I was relieved to find one normal, decent, acid-tongued individual alive and working at the Internet cafe - one of Shepherd's cyberhosts, who dismissed his counterparts at Cyberia as "kaftan-wearing, open-toed-sandal types." In the current love-in world of cybercafes, that seems to be as close as it gets to bitchy.
Before you rush to that How To Start Your Own Cyberia Web site, bear in mind that all this friendliness does not mean everyone is doing well. "I think that this year we'll see a lot of re-grouping and a lot of the smaller cybercafes will die," says Pascoe. "Already a place in Oxford went bust in a spectacular manner. The fact is," she adds, "that the business model for a cybercafe is quite difficult. We happened, by sheer coincidence, to hit on the right formula. But I think it's quite difficult to replicate unless people come and join us in a franchise and benefit from our experience. You need to do a lot of things in the back office for the front to work - the technology expenditure is massive and it's relentless."
But that is part of the appeal. "If I'd just wanted a sandwich shop I wouldn't be here. We've met a lot of potential fran-chisees who we decided against because they were completely happy just to offer public access and sandwiches. Some of them were looking at Cyberia as, like, a theme restaurant. For us it's essentially a technology centre." Cyberia has been extended to include a creative technology centre downstairs from the cafe called Transcyberia. "It's basically like a semi-nerd lab room," says Pascoe. "A quiet, non-smoking, non-caffeine environment designed more for software developers and designers. It works well because all those people want is a good environment, peace of mind and the tools, and then off they go."
Also part of the happy Cyberia family is the basement-located Subcyberia, home to the Sunday morning breakfast club, where a dedicated bunch of trance-lovers get down and shake their moccasins - often after a long night out clubbing. "They play all this heavy Indian and Eastern stuff," says Pascoe, "so it appeals to a specific type of person. Most of my staff are heavily into it and a lot of them are interested in that whole clean technology, technopagan thing."
The Cyberia family is a fairly tight-knit group. Keith Teare, Gene's husband, is currently revamping Cyberia's Web sites. The only slightly blurred role is that of Easynet. Despite sharing the building and owning shares in Cyberia, it will not necessarily be the Internet provider at Cyberias around the world. "We've got quite a good mix with Easynet and Cyberia," says Gene. "Our partnership means that we're drivers in the market and have a lot more experience than if we were just a cafe. But it's not an exclusive deal."
It's a tough situation for Pascoe. Not only has Easynet played a key part in Cyberia's success, but its frontman, Dave Rowe, has obviously provided invaluable support in the everyday running of the business. "It's difficult to lift yourself from being a small, successful company to the point where you are talking to serious money people. I can't do that on my own so for the moment I have co-opted help from Dave. Also, besides being extremely talented, it helps if I take a man to meetings. It's difficult being a woman - particularly a blonde woman - doing business and I didn't want to waste my time fighting stereotypes. It's particularly hard in London at the moment because of the fall from grace of high-profile women in business like Lynne Franks with Viva and Janet Street-Porter. The climate is basically 'I told you so' and everyone is waiting for me to make a mistake."
Fun for all the familyIt hasn't happened yet. Pascoe's entrepreneurialism has helped produce the shiny, happy, social face of technology that many people are determined should exist. The cafes are living proof that the future doesn't have to take place home-alone, interacting only with your computer. These are places where techies actually talk to one another. "The thing that we really have contributed to the market," says Gene, "is that the Internet just seemed dodgy to most people, and with all the press surrounding pornography and so on. But by putting it in a public space, people thought; Well, this is fine. We've had lots of families come down and once they've used the Internet, the fear disappears and the fascination begins."
"You know what's the most important piece of equipment at Cyberia?" echoes Subcyberia's Greg Roselli. "The coffee mach-ine. It's a genius way to bring together the virtual community and the real world. Eva might not have been the first person to ever open a cybercafe but I truly believe that she was one of the first people in the world to understand the culture and philosophy."
Ever since that head start - hell, ever since she started out in business as a 16-year-old street-fashion designer in Poland - Eva hasn't stopped running. This is a woman who came back from her honeymoon after two days because she couldn't relax. Ouch. "I keep getting letters from people who are doing reports on women and business and how you combine business with home life and family life and I always think, what family life, what home life? If you don't work 24 hours a day then it's not going to happen. We got ourselves into this extremely fast-growing position but at the cost of everything else. My family only see me when they come to London and drag me by the ear for a short lunch."
And the online life brings complications off-line. "My previous relationship, which I was in for five years, was completely blown as a result of meeting a guy online. I had this massive, stormy affair but we made the mistake of meeting. We actually lasted for a while as an off-line couple, but it was a struggle because what you carry in your head is completely different to the reality of meeting the person. That was an extremely painful experience because no one warned me that relationships online are so different. The heartbreak of giving up another partner before I'd even met this guy, before I'd learned that online romance has got its own rules - if I met someone that way now the furthest I'd go is to have a home page together."
Pascoe's own home page "has a nice photo done by a guy at Woman's Journal. I put it on the Net and I got a stream of letters from young kids. Some of them were pretty heavy but it doesn't really bother me. I think that interaction is important and even if some of the stuff is not to my liking, it's usually enough to send one email back saying, 'Don't project your dreams on to me, I'm just a human being.' " Eva Pascoe doesn't believe in projecting dreams on to a single woman. She believes in projecting a single woman's dreams on to the world.
Cyberia's Web pages hang out at http://www.easynet.co.uk /pages/cafe/.
Susie Forbes is editor-at-large at Vogue.