by Danielle Fong
Tonight it’s winter in Berkeley. 53 degrees and raining, and outdoors, warmed by a heat-lamp, sheltered by an awning. I draw spiced apple cider through my lips. Classical music plays. An earbudded minority vote silently with their ears. Old men watch hooded students roll down the hills towards Telegraph Ave, Berkeley’s epicenter of hippiedom. Moist, newspapers ink the hands of activists, busily plotting the victories in the years long struggle to ‘save the oaks’. A young man lids a drink and smiles at me. Separated by glass, headphones, and 12 feet, I smile back. We wave.
There’s something magical about this place.
I don’t know anyone here. To arrive I flew four thousand miles from my place of growth. This place isn’t home. Yet there are few places that attract me so strongly. Modern life has been made private. And in doing so, life’s become a little lonely.
Builders of great cities have long understood that life would, but for misfortune, consist of more than work and one’s home. The vibrancy, energy, and community grown in what are sometimes called ‘third places’ played part in much of the world’s social, political and intellectual revolutions. The roles that the Roman forae, French salons, and English learned societies played in scholarship has been tremendous, as has been the influence of American chautauquas, worker’s taverns, and artist’s ghettos in social and political spheres. These public, accessible, talkative, comfortable playful places are magnets for folks of many stripes. Creativity can thrive there. Unconstrained by work’s implied unity of purpose, and decoupled from the tight bonds around one’s family and home, third places give marginal people, ideas, and voices room to grow, people to hear them, perspectives to challenge them, and food to help keep the conversation going.
Yet in much of the world, third spaces are dying, or being replaced by poor substitutes. Nearly half the USA lives in a suburb. Some try to define suburbs with density requirements, or as satellites of more major cities. But that doesn’t seem to capture the idea: almost all of San Jose is a suburb. Los Angeles, despite its skyscrapers, feels desolate in the same way, albeit in a different intensity as Jacksonville, Florida. We’ve heard it all before suburbs have too much pavement, too much repetition, too many box stores, too many cars and vans and soccer moms and private schools. But nothing so much makes a suburb if not a lack of third places. It may be the defining characteristic. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing to do.
So people fight back.
They watch TV; sitcoms and reality TV, predominantly: short, canned glimpses into lives where people are living. The same people, born of similar neighborhoods decades later, would watch YouTube over Friends, prefer to text instead of talk, and paste pictures in MySpace instead of a scrapbook. They’d hangout in different places, most marginal, most online. Yet despite these differences, the core behavior remains the same. People reach out subconsciously and compulsively to the world. They have a social itch, and nothing in their known universe will let them can scratch it the old fashioned way. Times have changed. Things are just too far away. Instead, they substitute.
Centuries ago, Shakespeare’s melanchoic Jaques proclaimed:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”
If the world can be a stage, then the web is valued stagehand. Millions now live essentially online. Working means sitting behind a computer. Home means sitting behind a computer. Hanging out means sitting behind a computer. The web has made possible access to millions more places than urban planners had dreamed of. It deeply affects our culture. Yet, in many ways, it comes up short. The web doesn’t serve apple cider, nor can it provide heat lamps for the evening chill. Eyes I catch won’t smile back at me. I won’t be able to catch eyes at all. To how many does it occur that when reading the New York Times, or Reddit, or YouTube, hundreds of eyes are following the same pages they are? Does it occur to them that comments on popular postings represent the opinions of only an assertive minority? Does it occur to the millions of highschoolers using Wikipedia that they can change a page at will? That thousands of others have requested the same references for the same civil war paper as they? So much interactivity of the physical world has been lost in the transition to the web. How much can we get back?
PS: To all you aspiring entrepreneurs, ThirdPlace.com appears to be parked. The tagline?
The Leading Competition Site on the Net
rokhayakebe describes online places as cities in a comment on Paul Graham’s Cities and Ambition
“I think the biggest shift in deciding where to live is happening “online” rather than “offline”. I am an online nomad.
I never lived and never will live in MySpace. I do not like the MySpacian’s message (Hey let’s try to see who has more friends and hookups).
I sometimes spend time at Facebook. I lived there for a little while until I realized I am not so much into keeping in touch and I had no friends in the few hours I spent in college. When they open their borders, that’s when I found that I do not like the Facebookies message (You should throw more pies and send more kisses)
I vacationed at Twitter, but it is not really my cup of tea. I still don’t get their message (Life is a popularity contest).
So Where do I live? Well, I live mostly in HN. Although I sometimes get into arguments with the habitants, I have yet to find another city that beats the intelligence, vibe, energy and support I witness here. I take a daily ride to Techcrunch City and NYT, but I make sure I come back home to HN and mingle with the people who live here.”
This is a great post (I read through some of your older ones and you’ve earned a new RSS subscriber!). I don’t know if you’ve hear of Richard Florida and the “Rise of the Creative Class” – he talks about Thrid Places and their importance for creative workers. That book and “Death and Life of Great American Cities” are the two canonical books if you’re interested in the topic. I can recommend more if you’re interested. Send me an email from my blog page at http://www.pchristensen.com/blog/contact-me/ .
Also, thanks for your good comments and submissions on Hacker News!
Excellent essay! I too often lament the slow death of “third places”, particularly of the intellectual variety. Yet the suburbs do have their own variety do they not? Endless clones of Olive Garden, TGIF, Starbucks, etc. And people do use Myspace and Facebook to communicate with people they know in meatspace, and organize real-world events. I suspect the deeper problem lies in the quality of modern third places. Urban sprawl makes it less likely that two people, living across town, will ever interact in person. Why drive 20 minutes to the university cafe when your friends want to meet at the Hooters down the street? But in doing so people isolate themselves in small, regional, groups. It becomes very hard to meet people outside of work and your small circle of friends. The Internet, and social networking in particular, is becoming a way to meet people you may never otherwise encounter face-to-face. Afterall, even in the city many people are hiding behind their iPods, avoiding the need to interact with others.
I’ve been pondering similar things the past few weeks and you’ve summarised it perfectly.
You might be interested in MyBlogLog and it’s new api. It has great potential for allowing people to see who else is in that same space and fostering a community
Thanks! Urban environments and social interaction have long been an interest of mine, ever since I started playing Simcity. At two, I had already found reason to monopolize the computer. I used to want to be an urban planner.
Times have changed, and yet I’m still reading Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language), still thinking about building great places, and still playing Simcity =D
You’re quite right, suburbs do have *variety*, in the sense that people are presented with many choices. Frap or mocha? Spicy or Honey Garlic? SUV or Minivan? Perhaps the depth and diversity of said choices aren’t terrific, but there are certainly a lot of them.
It’s true that chance interactions between vaguely related people are drastically reduced, and it’s also true that the web, as it stands, has helped allievate this. There are more chance encounters, though statistically you’re (probably) far more likely to bump into someone at a favorite third place than online. The chemistry is likely to be more interesting two: one thing that won’t really work is to randomly pair off people on line in the hopes that it might promote diversity. ;-)
Yet much is still missing. The quality of many online spaces is low. Lurkers outnumber participants a hundredfold. And personality is rarely communicated by more than an avatar, a handle, a profile, or someone’s collected works.
Compare that to a real life bustling street: on many dimensions, in seconds you can tell more about someone by the way they move, than by reading the typical online self description.
Don’t believe me? Take note of the diffs between real life and a profile the next time you try online dating. :-)
Thanks for the compliments, and the link! Yes, MyBlogLog does seem like a good example of bringing some interactivity of the physical space to the web.
I didn’t meant to summarize though. I mostly wanted to open the question. The ideas I’ll suggest as answers: that will come later. ^.^
You are so on the mark about the online-life, and technology in general, essentially numbing one’s humanity. There’s nothing tangible living online. I move frequently and I always seek out a community, not just a place to live. While community is very hard to define, I always know it when I feel it. That common place where I may not know everyone, but we recognize each other and acknowledge each other’s existence. It breeds familiarity with the world at large and ultimately makes me feel more connected.
Thanks for the post. It’s wonderfully written.
By variety I meant to convey “a different form” rather than lots of choices =) One could argue that suburban restaurants, bars, and cafes lack some critical features of a true “third place”, but I suspect they serve the same fundamental purpose. Or put another way, it isn’t the lack of places to meet that is the problem, but the physical distance between people of like mind. Which is exactly what the internet addresses, and much better than the weeks it would take to deliver a letter from Britain to Italy during the Enlightement!
That’s not to say the internet is a replacement for your Berkeley coffee shop =) You’re absolutely right that the quality is low, and there is an extreme lack of social cues. And perhaps the very speed of communication makes people less thoughtful in their responses. Yet look, you have caught a number of eyes already! Eyes that may well be 10,000 miles away. I lack an avatar, or a link to my homepage, but I dare say we wouldn’t have had this conversation, virtual though it may be, if we happened to sit in the same cafe. Unless you happen to wear a button saying “I enjoy discussing sociology, philosophy, and urban planning with strangers”? I don’t! But maybe I can make one on CafePress… =D
[…] they’re written by X”, and her blog is well written and thoughtful too. I recommend Third Places and Outliers: Why the Central Limit Theorem Is Typically Off. In just a month, she has talked about […]
Perhaps my views can be best explained as follows:
I feel differences in quality are differences in kind.
While I don’t deify my favorite Berkeley cafe, I do ask what’s missing, from both places. The web in particular. :-)
this is wonderful post.!). I don’t know if you’ve hear of Richard Florida and the “Rise of the Creative Class” – he talks about Thrid Places and their importance for creative workers.must read all human it third party website.
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