Third place

The Resurgence of the “Third Place”

As an experienced community manager, I have witnessed the evolution of social dynamics in our society. One intriguing concept gaining traction online is the idea of the “third place.” 

Historically, people have always sought spaces beyond their homes and workplaces to engage with others, forming connections and building a sense of community.

Conversely in today’s fast-paced, digitally-driven world, the traditional third place has become increasingly elusive.

What is a "third place"?

Formerly our ancestors had access to taverns, cafes, and public squares.  These were physical locations where individuals would gather, spend time, and connect with others. 

These third places played a crucial role in:

  • Fostering a sense of belonging
  • Facilitating spontaneous interactions, and
  • Encouraging community bonds. 

Whether it was the local pub or the town square, these settings provided a neutral ground. 

People from diverse backgrounds would come together to have fulfilling discussions and interactions.

What happened to them?

Fast forward to the present day. It’s evident that the landscape of community engagement has undergone a significant transformation.

The rise of the digital era has ushered in unprecedented convenience but has also created a paradoxical sense of isolation

With the majority of our interactions occurring online, the tangible and serendipitous connections formed in physical third places are becoming scarce.

Many individuals now find themselves yearning for genuine connections and a shared sense of belonging.

The absence of a designated third place in modern society has given rise to a collective longing for community.

This sentiment has become even more pronounced in the wake of global events. They have highlighted the importance of human connection and support networks.

It’s a really weird time in the world right now. Therefore it is understandable for people to long for these “third spaces” yet again.

What will this mean for the future of communities?

I believe that the resurgence of third places is not only a natural progression but a necessity for the well-being of individuals and society at large. 

Building and nurturing communities will become more critical than ever. People will continue to seek spaces that go beyond the confines of their homes and digital screens.

The role of community managers will be instrumental in creating these modern third places.

But one does have to wonder…

What will these modern "third places" look like?

Digital communities need to step up...

 Online forums, social media groups, and other online communities (if done well) could be considered to serve as virtual equivalents to the historical third places.

It is hard to estimate exactly how many communities already exist online. Counting all the forums, social media groups, subreddits, Discord servers, and other online community platforms is a challenge. We could be looking at tens to hundreds of thousands of digital “third spaces” that exist. 

But these interactions are generally falling short.

We need to strive to build online communities that:

  • Enable meaningful interactions and connections
  • Encourage open dialogue without fear
  • Ignite the “spark of spontaneity”

The last point is what I’m really seeing lacking the most with online communities.

Challenge #1: building spontaneity online is incredibly difficult.

Look what happened to Omegle – a video chat app that allowed users to meet strangers from the internet. It was shut down in 2023 following years of user abuse. There are also issues with the metaverse – another potential “digital third space” contender – with numerous accusations of user abuse taking place. 

Omegle shut down in 2023

What I’m noticing is a severe lack of community experts in the design of these online third spaces – and it shows.

You can ask any veteran community manager how much work goes on behind the scenes to build “safe online spaces” and they will tell you it takes incredible effort. They have a lot of experience with human behavior – in short, they’ve probably seen it all.

However it seems that these experimental online platforms severely lack better judgement, resulting in such negative outcomes.

They should be hiring these veteran community managers and experts when designing the platforms from the very start.

Challenge #2: bad players can ruin it for everyone

We have to be careful of communities being built with a focus on “making quick money”. 

This happened a lot in web3 (to its own detriment) and I’m starting to pay attention to other platforms like Skool.  

The platform itself looks great (simple yet effective design). I wouldn’t hesitate to refer my clients to using this platform for their own online learning communities. It’s functional and clearly understands the basic building blocks required to run an online community well. 

However, with all of these platforms there are people that will use it “for good” and conversely there are communities with a heavy focus on members making money by referring other members. 

The platform is growing with these types of online communities (with thousands of members excited by this prospect). It reminds me of what happened with many web3 communities – to its own downfall.  

When the money runs out these types of communities tend to lose momentum quickly.

I’m curious to see how this plays out (I’ll be watching this closely). 

Skool community platform

Challenge #3: Change is required in the real world too

Additionally, businesses and urban planners should consider the design and implementation of physical spaces that encourage community engagement. 

This is an area that I also see falling short. 

Whether it’s shared workspaces, community centers, or vibrant public areas, these environments can provide the physical backdrop for spontaneous interactions and relationship-building. 

But it’s not enough to simply create a space and expect a community to thrive.

For example, in the past I often felt let down when I walked into a WeWork. Their so-called “community managers” seemed more like glorified receptionists. The people who were natural community builders often found their efforts go unrecognized. 

There was a heavy emphasis on running events vs. any proper process put in place to build “solid communities”. 

WeWork coworking community space

WeWork had the potential to establish an incredible network of professionals seeking to work differently. 

Unfortunately, there were numerous missed opportunities for collaborations. 

Some WeWork members did benefit from being in the same physical space and spontaneously connecting with others for later collaborations. However the approach of solely hosting events and providing amenities like free beer and ping pong tables seemed like a wasted opportunity to foster meaningful interactions among their members.

Final thoughts

The concept of having a third place is experiencing a revival as people recognize the value of genuine connections in an increasingly digital world.
Community managers, businesses and leaders all have a role to play in fostering these spaces, both online and offline. 
As we navigate the challenges of the modern era, the importance of community will continue to rise.
We need to right people to come together to solve these challenges. 
Let’s get to work.
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