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Loneliness and the Loss of Third Places

I’ve seen this concept of a “third place” in a few places over the past few days, and I wanted to write a bit about it to spark some thinking and maybe a discussion of how to create them.

Let’s define it first.

  • Home is our first place.
  • Work is our second place.
  • The third place is outside of home and work, where we belong with other community members.

On a recent episode of the Happiness Lab, the perfect example was the bar in the TV show Cheers. They also talked about things like bowling leagues, Elk’s lodges, etc., with Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, who shared about the fallout across society as we’ve allowed these third places to become less and less critical.

He argues that they are critical, though. Because they not only reduce loneliness, which is an ongoing epidemic, but they also increase cooperation within local communities. He discusses the importance of a single place where various community members could interact across socioeconomic divides.

This brings us to this piece on Refinery29 – There’s Nowhere To Hang Out For Free Anymore & It’s Making Us Lonely.

This is important. They raise a couple of interesting points. The first, obviously, is about how when all third spaces are commercial, you are automatically leaving out segments of the community. Think of where you and your friends might gather. I’m going to be making a visit to the home office of my workplace next week, which is in the city where I used to live. In making plans to spend some time with friends or family, we’ll inevitably wind up visiting over a meal at a restaurant or coffee shop. These are commercial spots. More than that, however, they aren’t typical “third place” spots because they aren’t designed to interact with other patrons, and you don’t spend time there repeatedly. Those are two aspects that are crucial to creating a place where there is community.

Think about Norm at Cheers as your example here. Norm is part of the community because he’s always there, and anyone who is also there often enough knows him. Restaurants aren’t that. Coffee shops could be that, but most aren’t.

Online communities could also be that, but as the article above explains, social networking sites are too big and commercialized to be successful third places. (It’s hard to be a third place when constant brand messages are tossed into the conversation, right?) Online communities might also not be localized, so some of the community benefits that accrue when you have a number of local third places might not come about either.

Personally, I think a smallish online community can become a third place, but it’s difficult. Successful third places are not anonymous and have social norms that are difficult to enforce online. Thinking of my own experience, as someone who works from home, I don’t really have a second place, let alone a third one. Yet, the online place that is my work is pretty good at being a second place because there is a community, standards, and accountability. It can be done.

I think the reality can be wrapped up in some truth, though. We are much more likely to watch Netflix instead of spending time in a third place. We are a culture that is seeing less and less interest in churches, club memberships, leagues, etc., and one that provides fewer clubs, small events, and other spaces for people to hang out in. That has hurt us socially. Media has made us much more afraid of each other, pushing us away from forming communities. (Fox specializes in terrifying their own audience and telling them to keep coming back to learn all the things they should be scared of, and others have followed in their footsteps.)They have helped us become less and less interested in creating third places. If we do gather, it’s usually for some specific purpose or event, not something we do on an ongoing basis. So, we never form the bonds that give us a sense of belonging.

We are lonely. That loneliness is causing immense harm. We don’t belong anywhere, but we should belong and try to find ways to create a space where people can belong.

Where do you belong? What does that place look like for you? What would it take to feel like you belong in a space? Let’s start this discussion in our communities, online and off.

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