The Third Place
The phrase “The Third Place” was coined in 1999 by Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist. I can’t explain it better than wikipedia, so I’ll just quote it.
Oldenburg calls one’s “first place” the home and those that one lives with. The “second place” is the workplace—where people may actually spend most of their time. Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. In other words, “your third place is where you relax in public, where you encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances.”
Examples past and present include coffeeshops, record stores, parks, video rental stores, bars, bowling alleys, and arcades.
Because I lack a better term (my attempts at coining a term such as “experience place” all sounded meaningless or lame. I’m sure someone will come up with a good term), I’m going to borrow Oldenburg’s and expand the definition some.
My definition of Third Place encompasses almost any “not home not work” place people might gather for pretty much any reason. This includes places that are generally not social in a “talk with others” sort of way (eg, movie theaters and yoga classes) And places that have small interactions like gas stations, grocery stores, and other common public places people might gather for pretty much any reason.
Decline of Third Places Due to Technological Innovation
Many of the IRL experiences from decades past are now URL experiences.
The social aspect of the record store has morphed from the general public to a much smaller niche of music lovers. Everyone else gets their music online.
The video rental store experience is more or less extinct. Grocery and retail shopping can all be done online.
I used to love to go to the bank to deposit checks. It was a nice break from my day at the desk and I knew some of the bankers. Now it’s done on my phone in minutes and I never go to the bank.
The experience of haggling on price is practically extinct, even for high dollar items. You can figure out what a vehicle is worth online, then buy it using your phone and have it delivered to your house the next day without ever seeing another human being except the person who hands you the keys.
Speaking of the phone, we don’t speak on the phone as much. We text or message. There’s fewer human voices connecting in real time. It’s often no longer a shared moment between people, just asynchronous messaging. Since covid, work is through zoom and the social components have gone very digital. Even meeting romantic partners is online.
Even smaller things like pay at the pump, or self-checkout at grocery stores take a bite out of the social component of third places.
But technology isn’t the only force acting on Third Places.
Decline of Third Places Due to the Pandemic
While technological changes have created social distancing indirectly, the pandemic has done it intentionally. No doubt some of the changes are here to stay and others will fade with the pandemic.
Some trends, like more restaurant drive-throughs and carryout, were accelerated due to the pandemic. Other trends like curbside grocery pickup and delivery are probably here to stay (I know I love them). Working from home, via video conferencing and Slack-like apps are here to stay for many of us. The water cooler and breakroom are all ours now.
Decline of Third Places Due to Affluence
The final major reason old Third Places have declined has to do with increased affluence. When I say affluence I mean it in two ways: (some) people getting wealthier and purchasing power increasing (eg, stuff getting cheaper).
A few examples. Not too long ago, having a home cinema was a luxury for the rich. Now, far more people can afford a high quality 80” tv or projector in their living room with theater-quality surround sound. Public swimming pools used to be social places (and still are) but as you climb the economic ladder you don’t go to the pool – you own one yourself and the social experience is limited more or less to your family and friends.
The same can be said of things like pool tables, high-end firepits and barbecues, hot tubs, and many other things that were only luxury items just half a century ago.
Evolution of Third Places
I’m not arguing that these changes in Third Places are bad or good (though I do have my opinions on some of them). My point is only that the IRL human interaction has been cut out of a lot of existing Third Places, or eliminated or avoided them altogether.
But losing old places isn’t the whole story. We also have replacements for those dying Third Places.
Because human beings have evolved as social creatures and we want Third Places. Or, more likely, we need them.
What kind of new places? The ones I first think of are breweries, beer halls, and coffeeshops. From where I live in Austin, I could probably walk 10 minutes to any of 10 places to buy coffee and loiter around for as long as I liked. Most US cities have seen this trend.
Yes, the pandemic has lessened, decimated, or wiped out some third places. But local, state, and national parks are packed. Sure some of the parks are visited to NOT be around people, but looking at my local parks, it’s immediately clear this is a social (if distanced) experience. The pandemic has also given rise to many more “virtual” third places.
Technology might kill off third places but it also facilitates new third places – both in connecting people to the places they will enjoy and also to have the low-cost technology to create new and interesting things like Meow Wolf, Giant Bouncy Houses That Go On Tour, and Indoor Waterparks. (In fact, Meow Wolf’s Santa Fe location is actually in an old bowling alley – an example of a new Third Place taking over a previous Third Place).
But Wait – There Will Be More!
I believe the market of Third Places has a supply-side issue and we’re about to find ourselves with an explosion of exciting and interesting (and not so interesting) new Third Places.
Here’s some factors that I believe will contribute to it:
- It’s no secret that Millennials and Gen Z value experiences more than buying and owning things. Experiences that happen in Third Places. (They have good reason for this).
- The internet, tv, and movies present people with far more ideas and experiences than were even conceivable just twenty years ago. We’re more conditioned to do new things because we keep seeing new things everywhere we turn. Being ok with not understanding a lot new things is becoming the new normal for people, so there will be more openness to new ideas, which opens the door to new Third Place creations.
- The United States is a far more culturally and ethnically diverse place than ever before. While it might not be obvious from headlines, I think that we’re headed to a world where people are far more open to differences and different experiences.
- The pandemic will eventually end. Pent up demand for IRL Experiences is enormous. We’ve already seen this with vaccinations and pandemic fatigue – concerts, sporting event and other long-missed experiences are selling out everywhere.
Due to increased affluence, better and more affordable technology, and the changes wrought by the pandemic, the world of Third Places is changing dramatically and quickly. Big shifts like these present many opportunities for new Third Places to be born, develop, and/or evolve.
Additionally, cultural changes and a growing familiarity with being unfamiliar will open new opportunities for Third Places to thrive.
What Will the New Third Places Be?
Sure we’ll have more of the known “third place” archetypes: coffeeshops, bars, parks, recreational sports centers, but I think there’s far more categories that we’ll see that we never dreamed of. In fact, I believe there will be mind-boggling selection of IRL Experiences to choose from as new ideas are tested out over the coming years.
My blog is filled with ideas, but here’s a few in case this is the only post you read.
- Experience Rooms: Rooms that can play a variety of surprising programs. Here’s a great example.
- Human-made Destination Hikes: Places purposely built for people to hike to (see my TexaPicchu post)
- Struggle Themed Activities: Travel and experiences made purposely difficult.
- Absurdist Experiences: Playful novel organized activities for the fun of it.(See Awesome Austin Tours By Mike)
- Presence-Only Environments: Places that sell nothing but ambiance or lack thereof. (See the parking lot bar )
- Patron-Built Locations: “If they get to build it, they will come”. Because people want to contribute to something bigger than themselves.
- Experience Museums: Museums where the experience is integrated and perhaps even more important than the content of the museum. (See my Museums Project page)
- Fan Worlds: Think renaissance fair, halloween party, fan conventions… but instead of at a boring convention center, in a more immersive environment which inspires fans to really go all out and contribute in a positive feedback loop.
- Permanent Activation Spaces: Experiential marketing as a full-time business that rotates brands like a museum rotates exhibits.
- Exposure Therapy Centers: Experiences designed to cure your mild fear of heights or distaste of lima beans in a fun way.
- Service Accelerators: Physical environments that make service and contribution to society more inviting, meaningful, and fun to a broader market.
How to Make a Successful Third Place
Those that understand and apply the design principles of Third Places will be the creators of the next great Third Place. If you would like help with your IRL Experience Design, feel to reach out to me. I’d love to hear what you’re working on.