Digital Hobo Etiquette: Reflections of a Wi-Fi Squatter

I would see them around the Loop when I worked downtown; kind of in the background and anonymous. I would try to avoid eye contact or look at them with disdain, depending on my mood. I am talking about digital hobos. A digital hobo, as I define it, is a person who does not have a Chicago Loop office but needs to come downtown periodically for meetings.

Between meetups, digital hobos need a place to hit the head, check email, surf, and update facebook just like normal Loop office workers. In search of free wi-fi and electric power for their laptops, they crash the picnic like some many unwanted ants.

I know of what I speak because after a 13-year Loop office presence, I am now a digital hobo. I hold office frequently with other DHs at Cafe' ROM and Cosi.

I am not going to define my favorite spots or where the power outlets are as not to alert my competition. A little known fact is that most coffee shops and restaurants only have one electrical outlet (where they plug in the vacuum) and the competition is fierce.

In my DH days these past few months, I have witnessed some good and bad behavior. My goal is to pass along some basic etiquette tips if you find yourself down and out in the Loop.

Always buy something. Your purchase amount should be proportional to the amount of time, power, and bandwidth you plan to suck up. A bottled water is not appropriate if you plan to spend five hours, participate in a conference call and download videos from You Tube. Even if you have no social conscience, keep in mind that if these businesses see their infrastructure costs rise but obtain no sales gain, they may close the wi-fi spigot for all of us.

Avoid the lunch rush. It is not optimal to try to transact business amidst the deafening roar of the lunch crowd when seating real estate is precious. It is also not fair to the establishment nor the other patrons who are spending more money than you and need a place to sit.

Resist manifest destiny. I went to a Panera for lunch recently and witnessed one of the worst displays of digital hobo gluttony and wanton disregard; the kind of stuff that gives us good DHs a bad name. At 12:00pm on a Thursday, this guy was all spread out in a four-person booth, mucking around on Facebook and yakking loudly on Skype via headset -- with only a long-empty latte' in view. Other patrons who had retrieved their lunch orders were standing around like carrion waiting for the next table to open up. They were dumbfounded by his display of self-fullness. If you must DH at lunch, buy some lunch and take a bar stool seat or at most a two-topper, not a booth.

Share power. If you are lucky enough to get a seat with a power adapter, charge your battery and then give up that seat once your fully charged, particularly if someone else is eying your location. If they have no power left on their laptop battery, offer to move and share the wealth; maybe they will do the next for you sometime. It's a "golden rule" thing.

Tip the staff. The benefit of having a climate-controlled place to office is high to in comparison to the cost of a coffee and a bagel, so make sure to remember your wait staff. It's just good karma and it avoids the hairy eyeballs.

Hope these tips help you to be a more responsible member of the digital hobo community.

Tom Reilly, Digital Hobo

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