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November 17, 2003

in the third place

Over at Snowblink, I followed a link about third places down to a review of the book The Great Good Place, by Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg's book discusses community building and how best to do it. There are three places we require to fulfill all of our social needs: home, the workplace, and the 'third place,' as Oldenburg coins the term. Think of a place like Cheers, a place away from home or work where you can meet old friends and new ones, where you can interact with people who share something with you other than a house or job. Friends made in third places complement our other relationships. We see this in TV on shows like Friends and Coupling. These third places have been disappearing from the US landscape slowly but surely.

Some of the properties a third place will have are outlined in The Good Great Place, including:

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.
4. 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.

Oldenburg points out that the ruling elite of societies have habitually prohibited discouraged these meeting places. They knew well that revolutions can be plotted over a cup of coffee or while waiting for a barber. As he says about Sweden's rulers, they “banned the drinking of coffee in the eighteenth century. Officialdom was convinced that the coffeehouses were ‘dens of subversion where malcontents planned revolts.’ "

There are other consequences to the loss of these third places. Oldenburg theorizes that we are more stressed in our marriages as we look to our spouses to fulfill all the roles that third place friends would have. We tend toward isolation and depression at a higher rate than ever before. We have tried to replace our third places with larger homes that have more entertainment and space, further from the maddening crowds, and we think they will take the place of true community.

I really like the concept this book promotes. I have been looking at community building for a while, wondering how best to accomplish it. I have had tastes of close community, and Oldenburg is right that it fulfills something we need outside the home. There is a difference between intimacy and affiliation, he says. He is correct. Where I will depart from him is here. I propose that the Internet, specifically the blogosphere as we call it, has taken the place of physical "third places." This is where I have met new friends and keep up with old ones, despite the distance. This place has made the world smaller, brought me in touch with people who I would never had the pleasure to talk to otherwise. It has broadened my worldview beyond my Southern Baptist Republican region where people like me can feel alone in our thoughts. It has shown me that not everyone has to discuss matters of religion and politics in a dysfunctional emotional tone. It has shown me new ways to look at the world around me.

This is my third place.

03:23 PM | Permalink


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Great post! It's fast becoming my third place, too. I just wish more of my far-flung friends from the non-virtual were online, too. Some of them do email, which has allowed me to keep in touch with them, but most haven't caught on to the blogosphere, at least not yet. Which is why it's great to meet new people here to converse with.

Posted by: Leslee at Nov 17, 2003 5:18:29 PM

I used to live in Portland, Oregon. There were coffee houses on almost every commercial block. These coffee houses were filled with interesting, well informed, progressive people. I'd take the bus to my favorite coffee house. The buses were filled with concerned, thoughtful people (and some junkies). I took my dog park every day. The parks had lots of interesting well informed progressive dog owners. I had great conversations every day with owners of every Spot, if not stripe.
Now I live in Floriduh. It is the anti-Portland. But at least the unemployment rate is low.

Posted by: caleb at Nov 18, 2003 6:57:23 PM

I'm so thankful for the community I am meeting via blogging. At the same time, I'm a little concerned that so many of our Third Places are removed from face to face, side by side encounters. There's a difference between relationships where everyone is like-minded -- and where you can shut down your computer or block an isp-- there's a difference between that and hanging out with EVERYone who walks into your local cafe. I can't help but think that this separation somehow helps the growth of rudeness and intolerance that you've written about recently.

We did have a little Third Place cafe just 3 doors down from me, but the place could not financially sustain itself and closed after many money losing years.

Posted by: mahala at Nov 18, 2003 10:32:40 PM

You are likely right, Mahala. I bemoan the loss of physical third places. I think it definitely makes a difference. In lieu of that, I like having this place. I haven't ever really had a third place that wasn't someone's home.

I believe that the movement of Third Places from public real life to virtual Internet may be a factor in the increasing isolation and rudeness. Not having to face people, being able to ignore or turn off the computer, you are right, these decrease our responsibility to each other. So this is a mixed blessing.

Posted by: Alicia at Nov 18, 2003 11:03:21 PM

But a blessing, still! For those of us who strive to go against the lowest common denominator and reach for what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" -- it is a great great blessing.

Posted by: mahala at Nov 19, 2003 4:43:58 PM

Wow Really Cool Post. I definitely can relate. Especially the part of Blog Families. ::HUGS::

Posted by: Ali at May 27, 2004 12:12:40 PM