Zoom: a New Third Place?

I miss my YMCA! Back in the old days, meaning up until the world shut down, I’d be there two or three times a week.  Not only is my Y a great place to workout, but it’s a place to unwind mentally and mingle with others. Occasionally, I go there to meet with a friend and hang out without even working out. In the current corona season, I can’t do that. 

Third Places

Sociologist might call establishments like the YMCA a “third place.”  What is that? People have two primary places that occupy their lives: home and work. A “third place” is neither home nor work but a place that people choose to go to socialize and relax.  In ancient cultures the river, well, market, city gate and town square served as third places. In modern times, places like cafés, pubs, bars, salons and barber shops fulfill the purpose. The concept is expressed well by the old sitcom Cheers, “you want to be where everybody knows your name.”

The key thing about third places, is that it is a place where you can be yourself and unwind with others of similar temperament. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who came up with the concept, describes third places as a critical component of a healthy culture. If you don’t have one, he would say you’re suffering for the lack of it. Even us introverts need real world social contact. Human empathy for fellow humans diminishes without it-not good for any of us.

Zoom-boom and Skype-Spike

Third places have taken a hit lately. They’ve been under assault at least ever since the dawn of the Internet, when social networking emerged as the norm for interaction. And now, third places are officially shutdown. We feel it. Not just economically. Wanting to be more meaningfully connected, we scramble to find third place substitutes. That’s the reason for the Zoom-boom. Skype use has spiked as well. I’ve used both more than usual. I’ve been on Facebook more, too.

With the increase in social networking, we have to ask ourselves, can the virtual world replace third places? I don’t think so. We have an inborn need to see others face-to-face and in person. Social networking falls short. With the Y closed, I’ve been jogging outside and I’ve seen teenagers sitting on their cars in otherwise vacant parking lots simply talking at an appropriate distance. The same thing is common in neighborhoods, five or so people, standing in circles, six feet apart, chatting.

We are doing what we can while we wait for the new normal to emerge. Still, I miss my Y. What do you miss?  What is the third place that you desire to get back to? Record your answer in this short survey.


    • Social media, including Zoom, is about the best we have. But I agree, its no substitute for gathering in person.

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