Fun exchange about virtual Third Places between Ray Oldenburg and Bob Yovovich.

Ray opens the exchange:

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.

Bob Answers:

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.


What do you think?  What are the advantages and tradeoffs of virtual and in-person third places?  Can they work in concert?



3 responses to “Fun exchange about virtual Third Places between Ray Oldenburg and Bob Yovovich.

  1. Interesting conversation. While I think the criticisms of virtual communities is warranted to a degree, I have found that they can not only reinforce actual living communities, but recreate lost relationships and, thereby, reestablish a sense of shared life that has passed. Far different from urban communities that are in dire need of face-to-face contact, substantive building-up of relationships, and socio-eco-political support of various kinds, virtual communities have the advantage of creating ties that can lead to these kinds of “more real” relationships.

    As there is a contingent nature to all communities, and a limit on the ways communities support themselves, and the members support one another, and dysfunction is usually the rule rather than an exception, delimiting the negatives without considering the positives disregards certain advantages from virtual communities.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Geoff, for your thoughtful comment. I hear you completely about the different, and sometimes complementary nature, of virtual communities.

      What are you and your family doing tomorrow? Regards to them from us!

      Thanks again for joining the conversation.


  2. We went to my in-laws and had a wonderful dinner and a great visit! Thank you, and hope you and your family are enjoying the holiday.

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