Is the Fourth Place the New Third Place?

Starbucks made its reputation on a completely customized drink menu and a concept they refer to as “The Third Place.”  The First Place is Home, The Second is Work and The Third Place, coined by Ray Oldenburg in his book “The Great Good Place,” is an informal meeting place that fosters community.

The concept has been picked up by small businesses, urban planners and those designing public spaces.  While these informal meeting spaces, such as parks, beer gardens or cafes, have been around for millennia, Starbucks was one of the first to include The Third Place as part of their corporate brand. The company designs their stores with the idea that people will read the paper, prepare for the day or more likely, work on their computers while in a social environment.

But what about the burgeoning ranks of people who don’t have a Second Place?  With so many people working from their homes or other remote locations, where does this segment of the workforce derive it’s social identity?  If you’re in an office, you know where you are in the pecking order and have a built-in group of colleagues and friends.  If you’re only occasionally “in the building” you’re a visitor, not a full-fledged member of The Second Place.  Has this isolation contributed to the revolution of social media?

I propose that engagement in social channels could be called The Fourth Place.  It’s not Home, it’s not Work, and it isn’t a physical public community, or Third Place, where people gather in person for social satisfaction.  It’s instead a virtual social space where people from all over the world can select their own “neighborhood” of like-minded people or virtual work colleagues.

Social media has taken the axiom that you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends to a whole new level.  The space brings together self-selected groups that have similar philosophies, careers or hobbies to engage with each other without the constraints of a common physical space.  And in The Fourth Place, an avatar can reveal or conceal your physical self, which can sometimes be a barrier to in-person conversation.

What The Fourth Place (or Space) doesn’t have is a geographic place or in-person interaction.  In Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Putnam finds that as a society we belong to fewer groups, know fewer neighbors, do things with friends less frequently.  Could this be the effect of The Fourth Place?  Are we satisfying our need for connections through a virtual filter?

An outgrowth of Putnam’s research has led to a website called: BetterTogether.  On it, there is a suggested list of 150 things each of us can do to build social capital.  All of them are things that have to be done in person. Where does that leave The Fourth Place?

As I sit observing at local coffee shops, I’ve begun to notice that not only are most patrons engaged with their computers and mobile devices, but many are engaged in social networking, rather than work.  Perhaps this is the swing backwards.  As we isolate ourselves more and more in our home offices or remote locations, the urge to interact face-to-face leads us to Third Place meeting places–even if we still use them to engage in virtual Fourth Place communities of our own choosing.

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