The other day my friend Ivan linked me to this on Twitter after I wondered about the evolution of the café, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. So let me tell y’all about a little something called third place theory.
The third place is a social space outside of home and the workplace (the “first” and “second place” respectively). Ray Oldenburg championed it in his 1989 The Great Good Place as an important setting for the building up of an engaged civil society. It “anchors” community life in a place full of creative, intentional interaction with broader circles. Third places, he says, should:
- Be free or inexpensive.
- Provide food and drink (though this is not essential).
- Be highly accessible (i.e. within walking distance for many).
- Host regulars (those who habitually congregate there).
- Be welcoming and comfortable.
- Connect people to both new and old friends.
You probably don’t feel the need to put your favorite coffee shop, church, or book club in the context of really pretentious social theory, like I do. But I think it’s helpful terminology nonetheless. Because I think this is the thing we’re talking about when we say we’re bored with our lives. Or when we say we’re constantly busy, but still find ourselves Netflixing for hours without that alleviating the sense of perpetual work. Or when we talk to that one friend we all have who is insanely well put-together and always has more stories to tell than you do when you have dinner every once in a blue moon. This is the thing we’re talking about when we say we don’t have time anymore. We’re talking about not having a third place.
This obviously isn’t true for everyone, but it is very much so for me. Since I moved to New York I have felt like I am always at work. I am in a state of constant stress. Either I am working (i.e. doing homework, writing articles, keeping up with one project or another) or I am at home (hanging out with my roommates, watching movies, surfing the web). I’ve been trying to figure out why I have felt like this when I didn’t at all feel this way in London, and one Wiki link later, I get it. I spent London in the third place.
In London, I spent a lot of time in third places. I was really involved with my church community there, and spent hours every Sunday meeting old and new friends in the context of our parish lunches and “coffee” hours next door. (The scare quotes are ‘cause I was the only one drinking coffee. Bless the British tolerance for alcohol at all hours.) I also spent a lot of time in museums, parks, and cultural spaces like the Southbank Centre or the local cinema. I got familiar with the same bookstores, routes, friendly-to-my-teams pubs. Like, tl;dr: I got out.
I haven’t done that here. I’m pretty much always holed up in my dorm doing work or in class. For a lot of people, it works to just say “get out in the city!” or “get involved!” – but it doesn’t for me. I need to have something a little more concrete. I needed to have this in my face: yo, go find your third places. Because not everyone’s third place can be soccer practice or the poetry club or the nightlife or whatever it is that usually falls under the categories of “getting out” and “getting involved.” For me it has looked like a very different set of things. My church, of course, is my most important “third place,” although because of various logistics as of late it hasn’t really been able to sustain me in that way this year. Beyond that, I’ve tried to use writing for the student news blog as this type of “third place,” but I’ve come to feel that our meetings and that process fall firmly under the category of work (albeit work with friends). My “third place” looks a lot like “friend dates” at least once a week and making sure I take some time every day for coffee and reading (which is something I am willing to budget for now that I know I need it). It’s pretty simple. But it’s unbelievably important.
I think Oldenburg may have been a little strict on his imagination of what could constitute a third place, though, if only because of the time at which he wrote his book. I think a lot of us would see the Internet as a “third place” now, if you use it correctly. I’ve seen it in action: my friend Amanda’s brilliant YouTube circles of less-than-famous & co., Ivan’s affable Twitter squad of “instapunditry,” the NotGDCA in its glory days on Facebook, my badass HDWP ladies on Tumblr. (If you aren’t familiar with that particular initialism, it’s characterized by critical thinking, willingness to synthesize the non-crazy parts of “social justice” Tumblr with the non-crazy parts of Western Christianity, and the ability to call out institutional shenanigans and terribleness with keen wit. Basically, they’re great.)
We’ve all got these third places, and we certainly all need them. Maybe you don’t need the words for it, but I do, because I’ve been depriving myself of this social space lately. And y’all know me. I’m big on place.