Virtual Spaces as Third Places

The Great Good PlaceWe all know that Starbucks’ Howard Shultz popularized the concept of “third place” in marketing, but Ray Oldenburg literally wrote the book (or more accurately the books), “The Great Good Place.”

Oldenburg argues for the importance of places outside the workplace and the home for people to gather informally to socialize – a “third place.”  He concludes that third places are vital for social engagement and for a thriving community.  His influential work has brought the term into conversations around civic engagement, urban planning, space design, marketing, sociology and of course, social media.

Oldenburg cites eight characteristics of third spaces:

Neutral Ground:
  Individuals come and go with little obligation or entanglements with other participants.

Leveler:  Acceptance and participation are not dependant on an individual’s status in the workplace or society.

Conversation is the Main Activity: and playfulness and humor are valued.

Accessibility & Accommodation:  Easy to access and accommodating to those who frequent.

The Regulars:  A cadre of regulars who attract newcomers and who give the space “mood.”

A Low Profile:  Without pretense, comfortable.

The Mood is Playful:  Playful spaces where word play, wit, frivolity are normally present.

A Home Away from Home:  Home like, easy, warm, a feeling of “rootedness.”

Virtual spaces, from Facebook to blogs to online games have  the possibility of all these ingredients. Our language around them reflects our acceptance of these as “places:”  friends, visit, home page, check-in.

Two assistant professors at the universities of Wisconsin-Madison and Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied virtual spaces to see if they fit into the concept of “third place and concluded they meet Oldenburg’s eight defining characteristics.  They found them to be “real communities” which build broad, inclusive relationships.

In his recent article in the New Yorker, Eric Klinenberg contrasts how communities with robust social structures fare in disasters against those who don’t have strong networks.  Social scientists find it is not location, wealth, or infrastructure that determines how resilient a community is, but the networks of these broad, inclusive relationships.  This kind of social capital promotes health and prosperity in ordinary times, and resilience in hard times.

Third places are essential to building these social structures. They are the environment in which people bumping up against each other, fostering loose ties and sense of place.  Virtual places are a modern thread in this tapestry and are tightly intertwined with our physical communities.  Their meaning for connection, communication and building social capital is as varied as the activities we engage in anywhere.


Neighborhood-specific website, Nextdoor, is just one platform but particularly suited to creating a neighborhood third place.  Neighbors who connect here may not ever meet in physical space for a variety of reasons, yet enjoy meeting online, talking with people living in very close proximity and exchanging favors. Cities are deriving the benefits of close-knit neighborhoods from this platform such as reduced crime, greater trust, help when trouble arises, and keeping each other informed.

Third places are don’t just happen.  They are built with intention.  Does your online community have the eight ingredients of a place or is it merely a channel?

For You
Read the study results,Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: 
Online Games and “Third Places., the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications,

photo credit: trendwatching, trend seminar, 2012.

Categories: Socialgraphics


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