Coffee. The fuel on which the Third Place moves. ©iStockphoto.com/kgelati1

In recent years, there has been a great deal of talk around the idea of a “Third Place” in our public/offline communities. First outlined nearly twenty years ago in the book The Great Good Place and later popularized by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the concept is typically outlined like this:  

  1. The First Place = Home
  2. The Second Place = Workplace
  3. The Third Place = An anchor of public life where diverse groups of people come together to form an ad-hoc community. Examples include cafes, libraries, or the traditional public square (the Zócalo in Mexico City, for instance).

Simple idea. Profound concept.

Online Community? That’s so Retro.
As more of our lives go virtual, many in the industry have talked about any number of virtual communities assuming the mantle of a Third Place. These days, the talk usually centers around Facebook and Twitter as being anchors for community. All those Groups and hashtags aren’t for nothing after all.

Of course, the idea is not new. When you start moving backward in time, you start to run into a number of technologies that were touted as the next big Third Place. Before the Web, there were text-based MUDs and MOOs where people interacted with each other and created virtual communities out of game-centered universes. There was IRC and the infamous #hottub. And of course, many of us still recall hanging out in chat rooms in online services like AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, and eWorld (anyone else remember eWorld?).

Does Everybody Know Your Name at Third Place?
I have been thinking a lot lately of this idea of Third Place and how it relates to social media. If we have been creating endless virtual Third Places for over twenty years, why haven’t any caught on and become the ultimate universal hangout?

My best guess is that virtual life sometimes can’t compare to “real life.” I make my living working in social media, but even I would have to admit that there are moments the computer screen comes off a bit cold. Sometimes you really do have to listen to your inner mother, get up, and get some fresh air.

But there’s something deeper at work, too. Maybe none of these communities took hold because it became more about the community provider than the people within it.

Starbucks is taking this notion very seriously. It recently unveiled the first of its spinoff cafes that completely drop the Starbucks label. This is more than a simple omission. I feel it’s an acknowledgement that the Starbucks brand and all of its associated weight became too much baggage for people who just wanted a place to gather, enjoy a cup of joe, chit chat, or get some work done.

In the end, a Third Place only works when the people using it feel connected to one another. Get in the way of that, and the community ultimately disintegrates. Third Place just becomes No Place.

:: By Michael E. Rubin, Social Marketing Manager

Cafe image credit: ©iStockphoto.com/kgelati1
eWorld image credit: Remembering eWorld, Ilenesmachine.com

Learn More:
Wikipedia on the Third Place
Ray Oldenburg and the Project for Public Places
PSFK’s look at the new Starbucks spinoff cafe

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