Virtual Spaces as “Third Places”

Note to reader: remember: “virtual world” = “social media.”

Don’t overlook the potential of virtual worlds as a “third place.”

Without doubt Starbucks’ Howard Shultz popularized the concept of “third place” in marketing through their store design and branding, but Ray Oldenburg literally wrote the book (or more accurately the books), “The Great Good Place.”   In a nutshell, Oldenburg examines and argues for the importance of places beyond the workplace and the home for people to gather informally to socialize – a “third place.”  Essentially he concludes that third places are vital for social engagement and for community.  His influential work has brought the term into discourses about civic engagement, urban planning, space design, marketing and sociology.

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.”

Two assistant professors at the universities of Wisconsin-Madison and Illinois at Urbana-Champaign through in-depth study examined online games and how they fit into the concept of “third place.

Virtual Third Place - ZimmerWhat is particularly interesting is that one professor studied MMOs from a media effects perspective; the other from a socio-cultural perspective.  They come to remarkably similar conclusions – that MMOs are a new (if virtual) “third place.”  They find that MMOs meet Oldenburg’s eight defining characteristics.  And, going one step further they ask if virtual communities are really communities, concluding that they are particularly well suited to one of the two types of “social capital” we build in communities – that of “bridging social capital”.  Bridging social capital is not particularly deep emotionally bonding relationships, but rather broad, inclusive relationships that tend to broaden our worldview, social horizons and that link our social networks together.

The article detailing the study and the results is fascinating, and an important read for businesses examining the opportunities in gaming, virtual worlds and social networks.  These are in fact, a part of the tapestry of our lives, work and society and the potential is as varied as the activities we engage in there.

“Game play is not a single, solitary interaction between an individual and a technology, contrary to worn-out stereotypes; in the case of MMOs game play is more akin to playing five-person poker in a neighborhood tavern that is accessible from your own living room. …Perhaps it is not that contemporary media use has led to a decline in civic and social engagement, but rather that a decline in civic and social engagement has led to retribalization through contemporary media.”

Read the entire article in the Journal of Computer-Mediated CommunicationsWhere Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games and “Third Places.   And, I apologize for not posting it sooner here – it has a lot of valuable food for thought for business and civic organizations.

Originally posted at my blog, Business Communicators of Second Life, 2007

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