I’ve been recently thinking a lot about Ray Oldenburg’s third places. According to him, third places are neither work, nor home, and are places where community life can unfold. Some of the core attributes of third places are authentic, accessible, accommodating, casual, conversational, inclusive, and neutral.
In the pre-internet era, third places were coffeehouses, bars, and barbershops. In the desktop era, third places were intent messaging platforms like AOL. Today, the way people are experiencing third places are changing primarily with asynchronous social networks and communication.
Today’s current options for new third places are corrosive to the fabric of society and many of the qualities intrinsic to third places. Authenticity and personal connection have taken a step backward in the digital age. I’m not sold on virtual third places. But they will get more compelling with VR and crypto networks. These new technologies (along with AR and Location Based Networks) offer new design spaces and primitives to create and empower communities, connection, and authenticity.
However, I believe there are massive opportunities for IRL third places. Most of the current offline third places are anachronistic and offer passive experiences. The next “third place” native to nascent technologies and behaviors has yet to be created. They will offer more engaging and dynamic experiences.
Ray Oldenburg’s conceptualization of third places was defined before the Internet. The layout of today’s coffee shop is radically different than those in the 17th century. For example, contemporary table design is intended to accommodate private media consumption, power outlets, and wireless charging stations. Coffee shops are far more multi-purpose than they once were; they can be a study hall for students, workspace for freelancers, and a place to relax for friends. Core mobile technologies augment experiences of third places today: QR codes for payment, geo-tags for social networking, and AR filters for photos.
I think third places have increasingly been undermined not only by the internet but the commercialization of third places themselves by Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. Many have noted that third places have become increasingly commercialized as quick service places for fast customer services. The internet has primarily amplified social pressures and added friction to authenticity. Customers are asking as citizens for urban planners and local elected officials to step up.
I think the user culture around third places must engineer authentic social interactions and more hangouts. Co-living and co-working spaces are compelling candidates to be IRL third places. There is the notion of the Fourth Place that’s particularly interesting in today’s world. The rise of new social environments is blurring the conventional separation between the first place (home), the second place (work), and the third place. New social environments can combine elements of the first and second place (co-living); of the second and third place (coworking); and of the first and third place (comingling).
I imagine a network of third places across cities and suburbs that can build important social and economic connections. This can combine the principles of architecture, engineering, social ergonomics, and design to enhance the core values of third places. As jobs are increasingly displaced, I see the opportunity for more human experiences.
I haven’t thought of the business mechanics in depth since I think it’s native to the service being offered. One of the big questions I have is the defensibility and scalability of these offerings. But I also believe this is an opportunity for subscription-based, gamified business models around identity and sharing. This could bring real-world virality to the real world.
There is an opportunity for the technologies available today (Location Based Services, Machine Learning, and Mobile AR) and emerging ones (crypto networks, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, 3D Printing, and Mixed Reality) to enhance the core values of third places. New technologies have reshaped customer needs.
Besides caffeine, there are other sensory starting points for third places like gestured based interfaces, audio and sound-based experiences, and creation tools. I think wellness will be the defining brand around new third places. I’m excited to discuss this thesis in a later post.