Ray Oldenburg bemoans the decline of the Great Good Place in American cities

Ray Oldenburg makes a passionate plea for public spaces where people gather. What does this mean in the Internet era?

UPDATE 2: Bob Yovovich responds to Ray Oldenburg’s comments:

Jeff, thanks for your very useful discussion of Third Places … and for bringing Ray Oldenburg directly into the conversation.

Yes, Ray makes a lot of sense in his comments about the limitations of “Virtual Third Places” (VTPs).

However, I would argue that — despite the limitations of VTPs — they still can play very powerful and valuable roles … and there are lots of examples of how they can actually do some things better than “traditional third places” (TTPs) can do.

I see the relationship between TTPs and VTPs  as similar to the differences between, say, face-to-face communication and written communication.

There is no question that face-to-face can be a very powerful communications tool in ways that written cannot match.

On the other hand, there also are ways in which written communication can be FAR superior to face-to-face.

In the discussions of VTPs, it is important to keep in mind that it is easy to both overstate and understate their effectiveness and usefulness.

And here’s a further complication: It is likely that the virtual / online environment will change our concept of “community” in ways that we are not anticipating.

I came across this type of thing about 20 years ago.  In connection with a book that I was writing, I took at look at forecasts that people – smart people – were making back in the late 1800s about the impact that the telephone would have on businesses and “business communities.”

The forecasts basically fell into one of two categories:
1 – There were those people who were convinced that – because the telephone meant that you did not have to be in close proximity in order to engage in business interactions – the new technology would cause business activity to become much more dispersed and decentralized.
2 – On the other hand, there were those people who were convinced that – because the telephone meant that you now could (from a central office) control business interactions in far-flung locations – the new technology would cause business activity to become much more concentrated and centralized.

What actually happened wasn’t one or the other.  In fact, it wasn’t even a hybrid of the two.

What actually happened was a complicated re-shaping of the business topography of a sort that really had not occurred before. The shapes and nature of “business communities” changed in ways that simply were not anticipated. (For examples of the kind of thing I have in mind, you might want to check out an essay – “New Maps For A New World”  – that I wrote about twenty years ago in connection with that research.)

And, just like the telephone-spurred re-shaping of the business topography, we are in the middle of a Web-spurred re-shaping of our “socio-communal topography.
That’s one of the things that makes all the new social media so exciting.

And, to underscore how fast these changes are taking place, let me point out that NONE of the social media are mentioned – no Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc. !!! (much less Twitter, etc.) — in the excellent 2006 paper on “the impact of Internet usage on social connection” that you cited in your initial blog entry.

We need to keep in mind that we are just at the beginning of the discussions of these Web-spurred changes – and I urge you to revisit the work of good old Marshall McLuhan, who has some terrific contributions to make to those discussions.

Including this great McLuhan observation:
“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

Let’s keep the conversation going.


UPDATE: Friend Jim Peters of the Responsible Hospitality Institute connected me to Ray Oldenburg today.

I asked Ray what he thought about virtual, as compared with in-person, third places.

Here is his response:

Hello Jeff,

Glad you enjoyed the book.  I don’t have much enthusiasm for the
so-called “virtual” third places.  The pitch is too psychological or individual-
oriented; the “group” doesn’t really do anything, doesn’t build neighborhoods,
is not visible to others.  Virtual 3Ps don’t have the mix of personalities, viewpoints,
and leanings that real places do.  “Virtual private clubs” would be more accurate.
Proponents seem unaware of all that is lost compared to face-to-face interaction.
I’m revisiting some data on laughter which third places generate in great amounts
and which, we are told, is good for us.  I rarely chuckle at electronic communication
unless a really good joke is forwarded.

Electronic communication spans great distances but what does that do for the
neighborhood one lives in?  I concur with Wendell Berry…real community is local,
all else is metaphor.  One doesn’t promote a neighborhood very well sitting in a
darkened room staring at a computer screen.  Whoever observed that we are
no longer neighbors but mere “nigh dwellers” had a point.  Way back in the 1920s
Mary Parker Follett saw the folly of “cosmopolitanism” realizing how alike those folks
all are.  Real differences between people exist in close physical proximity beyond
our privacy fences but we have found need to protect ourselves from them.

By the way, I tried tuning in to a lot of the stuff so easily available while
sitting on my ass.  Very boring for the most part.  But I’d never give up my
electronic sources.  I have published pieces based on what Google, et. al.
provide and could not have done it otherwise.

Cafes, coffee shops, bars, and beauty parlors share several fundamental similarities.

They are public spaces.  They are where we hang out.  And they help us get through the day.

Author and emeritus sociologist Ray Oldenburg finds, though, that these “third places”-the first two being work and home-are on the decline in urban America, and he’s not pleased about it.

The Great Good Place is his look at these places, their characteristics and meaning, and what can be done to have them re-ascend in importance.

Many thanks to friend and writer Bob Yovovich for pointing me toward this book.

Oldenburg opens the book by talking about the places he has in mind and then takes a global tour of third places, with stops in Viennese coffee houses, Parisian cafes and English pubs being some of his more notable destinations.

While he clearly enjoys the food at these various locations, he is also writing about a quality of interaction, of convivial conversation exchange and of shared pleasure simply in being together.

This type of connection, he argues, was on the downslide in urban American in the late 80s, when the book was first published.  Oldenburg opens and closes the book by examining the reasons behind the fall of the third places-he talks about suburbanization and the emergence of malls as a poor substitute-and ends the book with a passionate and italicized reminder that “It doesn’t have to be like this!”

Fast forward 20 years.

Oldenburg of course was writing before the ascendance of the Internet as a global force for community and connection.

This is dicey territory.

A survey of scholarly research has shown that Internet usage for social connection increases, decreases and does not effect users’ social ties to other people.

I have not yet contacted Oldenburg, but imagine from reading his book and subsequent Project for Public Spaces that he is advocating for more in-person, rather than online, contact.  He writes passionately in his book about American homes becoming the site where one does everything and the diminished public connection that accompanies this development.

Yovovich, on the other hand, is optimistic about the possibility of creating a similar kind of virtual great good place in which people can regularly gather to hang out, share thoughts, see each other and enjoy each other’s company.

What do you think?  Do we have fewer third places?  Is this a bad thing?  Do you connect more often with people in person or online?


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