Third Places

by Danielle Fong

Caffe Strada

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, appears to be parked. The tagline?

The Leading Competition Site on the Net


Further reading:

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.”