The myth of virtual 3rd place

Today I learned about a book written in 1989 by a sociologist named Ray Oldenberg.

But the way I came upon it was via a discussion between educators at UW-Bothell, who are trying to adopt more “open technologies” for teaching. Alternate paths to the Learning Management System are desired, in an effort to make learning and the process of learning more visible, less containerized and siloed generally. There’s an interesting talk shared by Jim Groom of a short presentation he gave on a historic antecedent to educational blogs, digital scholarship that was termed “Eduglu”. Link to that blog post + video is here:

My attempt to embed a link on isn’t working. But the link from here should work.

Within that talk right near the end, Chris Lott steps in and talks about the behaviors, phenomenon occurring when open tools are used and a community or interactive space builds up around them. The “hope” is a Ray Oldenberg-like 3rd space will manifest itself. The 3rd space is numerically located after 1.) Home and 2.) Work. It’s the space where you can engage communally with neighbors, locals, it’s not exclusive or private. However it’s not virtual and that’s vitally important, as even Ray Oldenburg points out in this interview with (the office furniture manufacturers – who BTW are heavily invested in non-virtual offices).

Q + A with Ray Oldenburg

Ray is asked point-blank the following question:

Is social media a new form of third place?

To wit Ray answers decidedly: “No”

“Virtual” means that something is like something else in both essence and effect, and that’s not true in this instance.

So Steelcase were really trying to get expert opinion that supports their business of equipping physical offices in rented/leased buildings managed by property owners. It’s a by-product of capitalism as practiced in the 20th Century, as-is Ray’s book about 3rd places. Without the suburb, the office, why do we need a 3rd place? It really calls into question the whole “system”, and who is it really benefiting? Suburbs were places that took in people escaping cities (wealthy white people), offices existed for the benefit of housing the white collar workers who smoothed the daily transactions of business, even as that became automated (more whiteness). So who are the target market for 3rd spaces? It’s most likely privileged white folks who need an escape from home and work and a greater need for belonging outside those 2 spheres. I think I would elect instead to simplify and pare down. I don’t need no stinking 3rd space to further compartmentalize or double my personality into work self, home self and 3rd place selves.

Instead I would rather re-integrate and become whole again and be myself in one space, and that would leave the Home. That sounds a little insular, selfish and self-centered I know. But I have been able to experiment with that a bit while working from home temporarily from March 2020 to August 2021. And I hope to get more chances to work from home in future too. That to me is the best compromise of all. And gives me all the places I need. It’s enough, ’twill do.

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