Quest For Community: The Digital Transformation of Third Places and Why They Matter for Public Discourse

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Do we have a problem of place in America?

As suburban sprawl expands its reach, commute times between work and home steadily increase, and big box retailers have replaced store fronts once owned and managed by the members of local communities, many scholars — whether in sociology, urban planning or political science — are concerning themselves with this question.

In his book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, hangouts and how they get you through the day, Ray Oldenburg laments that Americans are becoming estranged from one another as a result of these physical transformations of space, and he calls for a renewed attention to the cultivation of third places.

What is a third place? Let us begin with the definition of first and second places. For Oldenburg, the first place is the home; the second place is where an individual goes to work.  At the time that Oldenburg penned this book, the first place was the space where individuals spent most of their time, but this is less and less the case for Americans who work long hours and commute great distances each day. Oldenburg introduces the theory of a third place as a much-needed neutral space for “public relaxation” and social interaction.  As the title of his book suggests, these places are barber shops, bars, cafes, beauty parlors, parks, and community centers: the spaces where people used to gather to socialize publicly with other members of their community and discuss issues of the day in a casual environment.

Oldenburg contends that as neighborhood landscapes loseWeight Exercise these spaces and the constraints on American’s leisure time steadily increase, we have turned our attention to products for third place escapism: home entertainment centers, video game systems, smart phones. Thus, Oldenburg worries that we are becoming a society of isolated individuals, perverting our  pastimes into acitivities that center around passive consumption. He writes:

“In the sustained absence of a healthy and vigorous public life, the citizenry may quite literally forget hot to create one…. enjoyment of strangers is not much in evidence in the United States.  It is replaced by a set of strategies designed to avoid contact with people in public, by devices intended to preserve an individual’s circle of privacy against any stranger who might violate it” (13).

Writing in 1991, Oldenburg could not account for many of the new media technologies that have fostered novel interactions between people: social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook, blogs, user generated news, and mobile phone devices. So what do third spaces look like in 2009, and why should we care?

Facebook network

A 19th century downtown center vs. an online social network. Image on the right taken from using TouchGraph.

First and foremost, let us consider whether online spaces can serve as third places. While Facebook cannot offer users face-to-face interaction with strangers, it does provide a module for communication between individuals and their constructed network: acquaintances, peers, colleagues and friends.  Can an online space like Facebook transcend the physical spaces that are rapidly disappearing?  Can I be transported to a neutral environment when I login to my Facebook account while sitting on my living room couch? Can texting or tweeting count as civic dialogue between me and members of my extended community (which, in my case, does include civicly-minded individuals and organizations like Rachel Maddow and the ACLU)?  Of course, these technologies are transforming our sense of community all together.  One could argue that communities no longer exist in a physical space, but rather in mediated environments.

The larger question for me amidst this discussion of third places is the aspect of civil discourse and whether we are becoming an ever more fragmented and individualized society with our increasingly online lives. Can Twitter feeds and Facebook notes serve as new tools for civic engagement and thus extend the breadth and reach of our social interactions?  Are these REALLY one-to-many conversations, or merely monologic postings that engage little more than the mind of the poster?

Clearly the slow death of physical third places should give us pause and perhaps even cause for lamentation.  But the real question is what will remain when the dust settles. Will new media technologies and their ability to create mediated space for interaction be an enhancement or a detriment to our civic culture?