The Internet as Third Place

Ray Oldenburg is an urban sociologist who writes about the importance of informal public gathering places. In his book The Great Good Place, Oldenburg demonstrates why these gathering places are essential to community and public life. He argues that bars, coffee shops, general stores, and other “third places” (in contrast to the first and second places of home and work), are central to local democracy and community vitality.

By exploring how these places work and what roles they serve, Oldenburg offers a compelling argument for these settings of informal public life as essential for the health both of our communities and ourselves.

One of the important ingredients in building community is a physical design – the human factors engineering that facilitates social interaction. It is difficult for people to develop the networks that are a crucial part of human social systems unless there are places for encounters to take place. Without casual regular encounters it is very difficult for all the other steps in community building to take place: discussion, organization, action.

Indeed, one of the main points that Benjamin Barber makes in A Place for Us is that enlarging and reinforcing public space is an important element in strengthening civil society.

Public space, in the sense used here, is not restricted to government created space or publicly owned space, but denotes, more generally, anyplace where people are able to congregate and socialize, i.e. where informal social interaction can take place on a regular basis.

These are the sorts of public spaces that people crave. Some essential ingredients for successful third places include:

    1. They must be free or relatively inexpensive to enter and to purchase food and drinks.
    2. They must be highly accessible, ideally one should be able to get there by foot from one’s home.
    3. A number of people can be expected to be there on a daily basis.

All people should feel welcome, it should be easy to get into a conversation. A person who goes there should be able to find both old and new friends each time they visit.

Unfortunately, American society, in large part, is lacking in third places. This is especially true of the suburbs that grew so dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, but it also plagues more recent residential developments as many Americans substitute a vision of the ideal home for that of the ideal city. As Oldenburg notes: “They proceed as though a house can substitute for a community if only it is spacious enough, entertaining enough, comfortable enough, splendid enough – and suitably isolated from that common horde that politicians still refer to as our ‘fellow Americans’.”

Third places play a vital role in many parts of the world and different types of third places can provide a nation with its own characteristic charm: cafes in France, beer gardens in Germany, piazzas in Italy, pubs in England and Ireland, teahouses in Japan, are some well-known examples. In the U.S. the role has been played by many different places from local parks to barber shops and hair salons, to soda fountains and bookstores. But increasingly high rents, competition for profits, and the development of national chains, have turned many of the commercial third places into quick service (fast customer turnover), high priced businesses that do not meet the broader needs of citizens.

In this day of the $20 haircut and $3 cup of coffee, who can really afford to linger and socialize in such environments? Likewise, municipal community centers often have rigidly maintained schedules to accommodate different groups of residents, and they lack a casual “drop in” character.

The consequences of the disappearance of third places, and poor urban/suburban planning, are a decline in social capital, and greater stress on intimate relationships (especially the institution of marriage). Oldenburg, joining the voices of Robert Putnam and Margaret Mead and many sociologists who specialize in the family, notes that “In the absence of an informal public life, people’s expectations toward work and family life have escalated beyond the capacity of those institutions to meet them.”

The loss of third places makes it harder to make acquaintances and develop friendship but the need to do so is clear. People who are isolated tend to be less happy and less healthy. Given the nature of work today, and living conditions that isolate people, married couples face more stress as the relationship is unable to fulfill all the needs and expectations that are best met by an extensive social network. The bottom line is that people need both intimacy and affiliation:

“Third place friendships, first of all, complement more intimate relations. Those who study human loneliness generally agree that the individual needs intimate relationships and that he or she also needs affiliation. To affiliate is to be a member of some club, group, or organization. The tie is to the group more than to any of its individual members. There is a great difference between intimacy and affiliation, and there is no substituting one for the other. We need both. Lacking intimacy, affiliation becomes little more than a means of dulling the sense of emptiness in our lives. Lacking affiliation, intimacy becomes overburdened even as it risks the dullness or restricted human contact.”

The best third places are those that are inclusive and local. Particularly beneficial are those “that render the best and fullest service are those to which one may go alone at almost any time of the day or evening with assurance that acquaintances will be there.” Third places are not important solely on the psychological level, they are (or can be) important on the political level as well. Ruling elites are often aware of the political potential inherent in informal gathering places and actively work to discourage them.

Sweden’s rulers, for example, banned the drinking of coffee in the eighteenth century because government officials were convinced that the coffeehouses were dens of subversion where malcontents planned revolts. This was the case in the American Revolution where Bostonian malcontents met at the Green Dragon Tavern pub to talk politics and plan the insurgency. The fear of gathering places continues from Tiananmen Square, to Free Speech Zones, to DDoS attacks on internet forums.

Oldenburg believes that the reinvigoration of grassroots political society is needed but for this to occur the reestablishment of public gathering spaces is essential. Other benefits will accrue as well, as people begin to feel that more and more space outside the home belongs to them. As if generations of taxpaying has paid for it. People who feel a sense of ownership of a place tend to act more responsibly and they monitor what is happening. To be atom-splittingly hackneyed, Third Places help the village raise the child.

Oldenburg points out the valuable psychological, social and political functions served by places commonly referred to as “hangouts.” Second, he gives us a call to action, for all of us to work in the face of the private commercialization of space to preserve existing third places and to develop many new and better ones.  Bloggers did just that when they banded together for the Save The Internet Campaign for Net Neutrality. Defend the Commons!

I think that MySpace and online social networks are the Third Space hangout for most young Americans. Therefore, designing online social networks, or leveraging them, takes knowledge about Human Factors Engineering and the social structures of Third Places. I think properly designed networks are part of the key to restoring our civic democracy. On the side, I also think that Drinking Liberally is a key to the answer.

One more thing, what people are flocking to, and what people are escaping from is explored in this post with lessons from China. We are going to see young people use these Third Places the way The Sons of Liberty used Boston’s taverns and pamphleteers. I hope.

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