Being There

This week is the fourth annual XOXO festival in Portland, Oregon. I attended the first two, and I remember the acute and profound feeling that I had finally found my tribe. The feeling that I was surrounded, for the first time, by people who shared my priorities and nerdy interests and goals and experiences and references. They’re my people! People from the internet!

XOXO is a strong reminder that our third spaces have hardly evaporated. No, we’re not unsocialized beasts, lost in the meaningless glow of our wretched devices. On the contrary — our needs to socialize are as strong as ever. We’ve just found different ways to satisfy those needs.

The paradox of the public commons is a fascinating one. I think of it every time I’m in an elevator, a Faraday cage with no cell service, yet every single rider is tapping and scrolling meaninglessly on their phones. Oldenburg’s rosy town halls, markets and taverns are often filled with people acting the same way. We have a lot of mediated experiences, and we don’t always look up.

And yet. When we look down at those devices, we find the richest, most accessible “third space” in history. Oldenburg’s piece, published twenty years ago, marks a cultural inflection point that is only truly being appreciated now.

I write often on the importance of physical spaces, and intend to focus my thesis on using technology to facilitate social interaction in the real world. But I’m beginning to more fully appreciate how blurry the lines between the physical and the virtual have become. How our public commons exists not to facilitate relationships between you and the six people who look a lot like you and share your background and sit at your neighborhood watering hole, but instead you and the vastly more diverse audience whose tweets you star and instagram posts you heart.

So. I see the acute need Oldenburg speaks of. I see the need to share our spaces, physical and virtual, and the deep need to be better to one another. But I don’t see a dearth of opportunities for connection. On the contrary, I see my public commons on Twitter. I see the “tonic” of “neutral ground” playing out on Metafilter, on Reddit. And I see endless opportunity to bridge these spaces with real-world meetups.

As I mentioned in my IxD pecha kucha, speaking of desire paths and workarounds, life finds a way. John Gilmore famously wrote that “the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” I view it as similarly routing around the infrastructural limitations brought on by the suburban sprawl that Oldenburg rightly rejects.


Filed under Third Places

2 Responses to Being There

  1. admin

    Yes. And what are the aspects that Oldenburg uses to define a third place that continue over into the digital sphere?


  2. Max Kessler

    Very interesting point about the “digital spaces” we have while sometimes in such close proximity to others in an elevators. It’s also curious to imagine that we have created these experiences, digitally, to sometimes escape from our physical world. I agree that as we progress through technological engagement, we are very quickly blurring the line between physical and technological, but your point on diversity within those places is very interesting. While we are able to sit and hang out with 6 people near to us, we are also able to connect with billions of diverse others in a technological arena.

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