onegeeklogo6This week’s topic comes through a rather circuitous route, so bear with me… It starts a month ago, when I spent the first two weeks of December on a writing retreat.

The idea was simple. Seclude myself away in an area I find environmentally stimulating (for me, this is means winter storms, grey skies, trees and water, so the North Oregon coast was perfect) for an extended period (long enough for the “just here for a weekend” need to sleep/enjoy the area/get over jet lag to go away) with a specific purpose (revising my novel per some professional advice I’d received on it.) I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to borrow some friends’ mom’s cabin, which meant the ability to cook in the kitchen, sleep in a real bed, etc. And, perhaps most importantly, it had limited connectivity – no cable tv (not a biggie for me), no telephone (but I had my cell) and… NO INTERNET.

I’ll pause a moment, for those of you who know me to regain your senses. Yes, I willingly removed myself from in-house internet for two whole weeks. I know. I know.

You’ll note there was a qualifier there… that whole “in-house” thing. Yes, there was internet available, free and at a faster-than-dialup rate, but it was at the local library (or in the library parking lot after hours, since the library was only open 5 hours a day and not at all on Sunday). And, while this was only a few blocks away, the weather was (as I’d hoped) freezing, wet and windy, so even simple “check my email” connectivity meant being dressed, getting into the car and driving over, especially when the library was closed and we internet junkies (I wasn’t the only one) were forced to sit in the parking lot and connect that way, like a herd of hobos gathered around a barrel fire.

I admit, I made the trip at least once a day, sometimes several times, but the reduction in connectivity definitely increased my ability to concentrate on my work deeply and for extended periods without that niggling “I wonder if I have any mail… Hmmm, who’s saying what on Twitter? Oooh, time to harvest my fields on Farmville!” stuff going on. And, I got to know the local librarians pretty quickly, which was also nice, because I am a very social animal, and two weeks without my family or pets or more than passing contact with people I knew was rough.

It was one of those librarians who raised this week’s topic, albeit in a round-about way. I had sequestered myself at the only table at the library (it’s a very small town, and a very small library, maybe about the size of a one-bedroom house) and had plugged my computer into a readily apparent socket, as my battery only lasts 45 minutes to an hour, most times. The librarian came over and, quite apologetically, informed me that I’d have to unplug it – that it was against their policy to allow visitors to plug in any sort of electronic device at the library.

Although I, of course, immediately and politely abided by her request, I have to admit, my first thought was consternation and frustration. This must have been apparent, as she quickly explained their reasoning – firstly, they didn’t want to be responsible for damages to any equipment if there was a power surge or some sort of electronic failure, and secondly – with funding cuts reducing hours, services and book purchase, they didn’t feel it was fair to the general public for a small number of members to increase the utilities for everyone, thereby further reducing the available budget for the general population. I asked if they’d recently made this change, and if it had affected their electric bill appreciably, and she replied that yes, they’d seen a notable change since making the policy (their heating is gas, so lights and computers/office equipment are their major electric drains.)

This really got me to thinking about the effect that “public plugging in” can have on businesses. I’ve travelled a lot in the last few years, and it’s become very common to find folks at airports and other transportation locations plugging in to recharge phones, use laptops and the like. But also at restaurants, coffee houses, hotel lobbies, convention centers, etc. I’ve even seen folks plugging in at public outlets at parks, zoos, shopping centers or outside of businesses – anywhere that an open outlet is available.

And, honestly, I’d never really thought about the etiquette of “plugging in”. If an outlet was available in a non-private location (ie: pretty much anywhere that one was obviously available), and I needed to recharge my phone/camera battery/laptop, I just plugged in, sometimes settling myself on the floor/ground/stairs to do so.

The librarian’s request, however, sent me to do some research, and I’ve spent some time thinking on the topic, and I think there are three basic types of locations when considering this subject, each with its own “best protocol.”

1) Public With Permission – These are locations which are publicly available (even if technically private property) and where permission to use the connectivity is given, either explicitly or implicitly. Explicit permissions might include things like recharge stations being set up with signs that encourage you to plug in your devices. Implicit permissions include things like study carrels or workspaces being offered to the public with plug-ins placed at convenient locations. Some locations, such as airports, hotel lobbies (if you’re staying or attending a function there), convention centers (if you’re at an event there) and libraries (usually – see exception below!) are generally considered to be implicitly okay, at least when outlets are placed so as to be convenient for those using the area. There’s no need to ask permission in such locations, but as always, be polite if you’re asked to move or to unplug.

2) Public Without Permission – These are locations which are publicly available (even if technically private property) in which permission is not explicitly or implicitly given. These might include restaurants and cafĂ©’s without some sort of wi-fi service provided, shops or bookstores (other than the ones which implicitly encourage the same by virtue of comfortable lounging areas with prominent outlets), outdoor venues (zoos, amusement parks, parks, etc.) or shopping centers.

If possible (ie: if there’s someone to whom you can ask) it’s always polite to ask before plugging into these sorts of locations. However, especially with outdoor venues or shopping malls, it’s not always possible. For the most part, it’s probably okay, as long as the outlet is in an area that is prominent and accessible to the public, but (as always) be polite if you’re asked to move or unplug.

3) Private – Permission to use electricity should always be requested before plugging in private locations such as homes, dorm rooms, private medical or business offices (other than the lobby/waiting areas), or the like. If you think someone would be surprised if they walked in and found you plugged in – it’s best to ask first.

Exceptions – Especially in the case of very small facilities, it never hurts to ask permission before plugging in. In privately owned restaurants or coffee shops that /don’t/ offer free wi-fi (if they do, chances are they are expecting folks to plug in while using it), very small businesses (even libraries), etc. It’s kind of an amorphous ground, but if there is someone available from whom you can request permission, it’s always nice to err on the side of politeness.

Prohibitions – Even in areas which are generally implicitly alright to plug in, certain prohibitions apply.

  • Do not place your wires across public walk-ways or in locations where it is likely others will trip on them.
  • Do not use applications which are likely to disturb others nearby – headphones (and volume that doesn’t escape them) are a must, and if you’re watching something extremely violent, graphic or sexual – you may want to be aware of who else can see your screen. I was sitting next to a medical student on a long flight who was watching an autopsy film on her laptop the entire flight, and I spent almost four hours trying not to glance at her screen, which was right in my field of vision.
  • Do not extensively move furniture or decorations in order to access the electricity. If you have to drag a table or bookshelf out from the wall in order to reach the plug, the chances are that the establishment doesn’t want you using it. Also, don’t disassemble anything to reach the electricity. If there is a covering, case, lid or faux front over the plug, chances are similar that it’s there for a reason. Ask first, there may be a more convenient location available.
  • Do not plug into areas where the establishment is already using the plugs for some purpose, without asking. You may overload a circuit and bring down their heating/cooling/appliances/servers, etc. NEVER unplug existing machinery to use someone else’s outlet without express permission to do so.
  • Do not plug into areas where it may affect established services without express permission. This would include medical facilities (other than in the waiting room/lobby), transportation/communication centers, high tech computer/office areas, etc.

Be Polite! – The basic rule of etiquette is always to be considerate of others. If you’re in a busy or crowded place and you’re using the only plug, consider unplugging and giving someone else a chance to charge their phone or check their mail, rather than using it to watch a movie or play a game for hours. If possible, always arrange your plug so that it doesn’t block other outlets, so that others can use the juice too.

Have questions about how to handle a geeky situation? Need advice on social etiquette relating to games, movies, fan groups, conventions or other geek-ful settings? Write us at and your question may get answered in one of our future One Geek to Another columns!