Forum [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“The Roman Forum evolved throughout hundreds of years, causing distinctly stratified layers of development… In a similar way, the evolution of the internet has prompted new layers of forums to develop, and just as the Forum’s layers built upon each other, the internet provides yet another layer to the ongoing media archaeology propping up the modern-day forum.”

The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)


Forum — Hope Forsyth, University of Tulsa

Two thousand years of history, legislation, applications, and context converge in the term forum. Though closely associated with concepts of arenas and agoras (two other classical gathering spaces), forum‘s etymological basis and architectural history set a foundation for considering it as a spatially grounded, physically embodied place of public action, gathering, and societal interaction. In what follows I will establish a rubric for defining a forum and then apply it to current iterations, both physical and online.

Historical Context and Comparison

 The term forum is linguistically derived from the Latin fores, meaning “what is out of doors,” indicating a type of liminal space within society but outside of one’s home. Here, a forum set apart a section of the community as space, neither home nor alien, where public and private concerns could be tended and civic gatherings could be held. Architectural historian David Watkin describes the Roman Forum, the most well-known of the ancient forums, located between the Capitoline and Velian hills in Rome, as the “juridical, administrative, and commercial centre of Republican Rome [which] later became the key symbol of Roman imperial power” (2). In it intermingled business and military affairs, criminal trials and victory marches, religious shrines and the Senate. Roman citizens’ active public lives were generally contained in the expanses of the Forum. In addition to the Forum’s civic infrastructure – places for courts, sacrifices, military demonstrations, and so forth – a key feature was its human-supporting infrastructure, such as food stalls (Watkin 20) and a sewage system (Ancient History Encyclopedia), which was used to drain the swampy land the Forum occupied. In this way, the human-supporting infrastructure preceded and accompanied the civic infrastructure; without the former, physical constraints would have rendered the latter unsustainable.

One thing the Forum did not include was spectator sports. Those, the most famous of which are certainly the gladiatorial games, took place at arenas such as the Colosseum. Arenas, defined by the OED, can be “any sphere of public or energetic action” but more primarily are “a scene or sphere of conflict; a battle-field.” Citizens gathered in arenas for the largely passive activities of observation and entertainment. By contrast, the Forum provided for citizens a physical space for active gathering, participation, and progress.

The physical Roman Forum and its attributes influenced the use of the word, as seen In the Oxford English Dictionary’s several definitions, including “as the place of public discussion” and “a court, tribunal.” The first definition has found new life with the rise of online message boards, but the second is also curiously relevant.

Forums considered broadly as spatially grounded, physically embodied spaces comes with their own legal precedent, especially in the United States. During the 1980s and in response to multiple lawsuits regarding free speech in public schools, the Supreme Court established three types of forums where First Amendment rights to free speech can be exercised: public forums (i.e., “public parks, sidewalks and areas that have been traditionally open to political speech and debate”), which are open to all at all times; designated forums (i.e., “municipal theatres and meeting rooms at state universities”), which are used at specific times; and nonpublic forums (i.e., “airport terminals and a public school’s internal mail system”), which require vetting before participating (Cornell Law School). This delineation is mutually exclusive. For the court, a place can only be one of the three types of forums: public, designated, or nonpublic.

Considered generally, forums, whether uppercase-F Roman liminal spaces or lowercase-f American public spaces, exhibit three attributes. First, they are spaces of public gathering, where societal norms and interests, including commerce and religion, are pursued. Second, they are spaces of public action, where both personal and public business is conducted. Third, they are physically embodied; the civic infrastructure[1] they provide is impossible without physical, and even more specifically human-supporting, infrastructure designed to support the basic physical necessities – such as shelter, food, and plumbing – of those acting within them.

Internet “Forums”

In many ways, the internet as platform for many networked forum resembles the Roman Forum in the way that it provides close and quick access to gathering and action, such as commerce, legislation and law enforcement, and religion. Many such activities – bill paying, tax filing, devotional reading, and news browsing – belong to private business, although public actions – such as searching open records or rallying community support – are not uncommon. At the same time, the average online site resembles an arena more than a forum, given the plethora of opportunities for passive spectating. Flame wars and online comment sections can be as seductive as a car wreck in commandeering attention for themselves. Those who follow such clashes resemble far more the spectators in the Colosseum watching gladiatorial battles than citizens conducting business in the Forum. It’s a peculiar perk (and drawback) that the internet can, with a rapid-fire jumble of typing and clicking, switch back and forth between mimicking forums and mimicking arenas.

Online message boards, commonly called forums, fulfill the first and second attributes of forums – public gathering and meaningful action – and, at first glance, appears to fulfill the third as well. After all, the internet cannot exist without its profoundly material infrastructure of physical wires, plugs, pixels, fiber optic cables, displays, electricity grid, and sundry other material supports (Edwards). Nevertheless, the physical infrastructure of internet is insufficient to consider whether it, or any website within it, may function as a forum by itself alone, as it doesn’t provide the human-supporting infrastructure that its participants need to sustainably continue interacting with it.[2] John Perry Barlow triumphantly proclaimed in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace that the internet “consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself…[it] is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” True enough, except that bodies have to live somewhere.

Human Support versus Physical Infrastructure

The Roman Forum evolved throughout hundreds of years, causing distinctly stratified layers of development. When fires raged or buildings became decrepit, new infrastructure sprang up on top of its predecessors. In a similar way, the evolution of the internet has prompted new layers of forums to develop, and just as the Forum’s layers built upon each other, the internet provides yet another layer to the ongoing media archaeology propping up the modern-day forum.

The internet demands a human-supporting infrastructure in order to function as a forum. In her dissertation Where Code Meets Place, Laura Forlano, a communication and design scholar, emphasizes the interconnectedness of place and organization when interacting with the internet: “physical spaces are quickly being mapped, located and layered with an invisible digital skin signaling a merger between the digital and the real, offline, analog worlds” (3).

Others have examined more closely perhaps the historical example of such a site of digital and analog mergers: namely, the coffee shop. James Cowan, a historian of early modern British history, sets a framework for considering the coffee shop as a significant physical space, especially for social activism and public participation, in his 2005 book The Social Life of Coffee. He writes: “the coffee house has been understood to be a novel and unique social space in which distinctions of rank were temporarily ignored and uninhibited debate on matters of political and philosophical interest flourished.” (2) Coffee houses became one of the first early modern places where public gathering, interaction, and activity could occur outside of government owned property.[3]

Coffee houses as forums are still prevalent today, from behemoth Starbucks to twee hipster hotspots – often in close proximity with each other. Current versions of the coffee shop may not always host the lofty philosophical debates that Cowan and Habermas describe in their works. Rather, only in WiFi-hospitable coffee houses or similar places, may an online site satisfy all three attributes of a forum. Their variety of gatherings and actions, from job interviews to WiFi workers, and the necessary physical support structures – food, shelter, climate control, plumbing, and abundant caffeine[4] – provide all three forum attributes. Coffee shops (and by extension, other WiFi hotspot hosts), considered purely physically, satisfy the missing human-supporting infrastructure the internet needs to be a sustainable forum.

Unlike the Supreme Court’s three types of mutually exclusive forums, coffee shops have a two-layer design. Using the Court’s definitions, coffee shops as a whole are designated forums (that is, they are accessible at specific, set times – their hours of operation). However, the ways they pair physical space and Internet differentiates some coffee shops from others. Those that provide free WiFi, whether unsecured or with a password prominently posted for anyone who enters to use, function as a designated-public forum: anyone with a computer can utilize the shop’s WiFi within the designated hours of operation. Shops that require a purchase before handing over the WiFi password function as a designated-nonpublic forum: they’re only available after fulfilling certain conditions.[5]

Coffee shops function similarly to the Roman Forum in the way they establish liminal spaces, out of the private domestic sphere of one’s home but within society. Former Starbucks CEO Jim Donald explicitly reveals this motivation: “It’s all part of their strategy to make Starbucks a third primary “place” in the day of Americans. ‘We say the first place is home, second place is office, and then Starbucks is a third place…They use our stores for gathering spots, and we think that that’s what makes that whole experience what it is today.’”

The physical infrastructure of coffee shops goes beyond fulfilling the third criterion for a forum and extends influentially to another attribute: the action that takes place. The hum of a bustling coffee shop – espresso machines whistling, chairs scratching, greetings being exchanged, muted conversations, carefully cultivated indie music playing in the background – has been shown to enrich the creativity of the people within the space. A study done by several business administration professors on ambient noise concluded that “a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise is likely to induce…processing difficulty, which activates abstract cognition and consequently enhances creative performance. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing, thus impairing creativity” (Mehta 785). In other words, working in a physically bustling forum improves the quality of that work – at least when it comes to creativity – by forcing the brain to originate workarounds and responses to small difficulties in its usual function.[6]

Forlano also recognizes this effect and remarks that “mobile professionals working in cafes are often surrounded by the loud screeching of the espresso machine…While this could be seen as an inconvenience, many mobile works report that sound is an important stimulant for their work” (155).[7] This effect can be approximated somewhat with looped audio tracks of coffee shop sound, though the effect is less pronounced and the coffee less abundant; here again, physical infrastructure just cannot be escaped.[8] In this way, the human-supporting infrastructure and the spatial qualities of the coffee shop both complete the requirements of a forum and go beyond mere sustainment of the environment, enriching the other forum attributes and having a positive effect on the actors within the system.

Historical context establishes forum as a site of physical embodiment, gathering, and public action, whereas the arena appears as a site for spectating, entertainment, and gawking. Though forum has a number of senses, including judicial and historical, it is defined most clearly and generally by three attributes: public gathering, public action, and human-supporting infrastructure. Even with material aspects, the internet does not function as a sustainable forum considered on its own because of its lack of human-supporting infrastructure. Coffee shops – which first became sites of public gathering and action in early modern Britain – now couple physical resources and internet accessibility, meeting all three attributes necessary to active a new sense of a sustainable forum simultaneously online and off. The ancient Roman Forum’s many layers now include early industrial age and Silicon Valley innovations.


1. See Bowker and Star’s Sorting Things Out, which identifies some features of infrastructure, including embeddedness in social arrangements and links with conventions of practice (Bowker, 35).

2. Some types of hardware may be called chips, but, put flippantly, they’re no substitute for potatoes.

3. In 2003, The Economist ran an article entitled “The Internet In A Cup: Coffee fuelled the information exchanges of the 17th and 18th centuries,” which traces the development of coffee houses as “information exchanges for writers, politicians, businessmen and scientists” and even remarks that “coffee-houses provided a forum for education, debate and self-improvement” (emphasis mine).

4. Indispensable, that last one.

5. The Economist remarks characteristically that “history provides a cautionary tale for those hotspot operators that charge for access….information, both in the 17th century and today, wants to be free-and coffee-drinking customers, it seems, expect it to be.”

6. In some ways, this works almost like an inoculation: prompt a response on a small scale and you get a productive result, mess with it a lot and things go haywire.

7. She continues “Those that are distracted or bothered by the ambient noises often use personal music devices such as iPods in order to block out the sounds” (Forlano 155).

8. I can attest to the helpfulness of this idea, having written this entire paper with (a website that provides looped café sounds for free) open in the background, which did indeed help with focus and creativity. My coffee ran out around page three, though, so the system isn’t perfect.


ABC News. Starbucks’ Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 March 2014.

Ancient History Encyclopedia. The Roman Forum. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Barlow, John Perry. A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999. Print.

Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. Forums. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 March 2014.

Cowan, Brian. The Social Life of Coffee. Yale UP, 2011. Print.

The Economist. The Internet in a Cup. The Economist Newspaper, 20 Dec. 2003. Web. 20 April 2014.

Forlano, Laura. Where Code Meets Place. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 March 2014.

Mehta, Ravi, and others. Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 39, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 784-799. JSTOR. 28 March 2014.

Oxford English Dictionary. Arena. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 March 2014.

Oxford English Dictionary. Forum. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 March 2014.

Watkin, David. The Roman Forum. Harvard UP, 2009. Print.