In his 1989 work, The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg floated the idea of our needing a “third place.” Our first place is our home, where we live. Our second place is our work, where we spend a large portion of our time. Our “third place,” however, is an informal space that brings us together in community and where we interact with others and build social bonds. Classic “third places” in pop culture have included the bar from the television show Cheers and Central Perk, the coffee shop from Friends. At our colleges and universities, these may include dining halls, student unions, student activity offices or residence hall lounges. These third places are important because they serve as anchors in civic society. They create spaces where “regulars” can meet to build relationships, develop community and join in conversation. They create an opportunity to connect with, build empathy for, and bond with fellow citizens outside of the confines of our family and work relationships.
That sounds pretty altruistic to me… HOWEVER…
Playing off a similar theme, Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, put forward the argument that the decline of America’s “third places” is resulting in the dissolution of our social fabric. In Putnam’s example, the rise of television in the home paralleled the decline in participation in bowling leagues. As we no longer come together to bowl, but we “bowl alone,” we are increasingly isolating ourselves from the broader society and therefore causing a form of civic decay.
That sounds pretty alarmist to me… BUT…
It should be noted, however, that both authors wrote their works before the advent of social media. In many ways, social media is leading the charge in creating a new form of “third place,” the digital third place. Digital third places function just like their physical counterparts. They bring a diverse group of individuals together outside the confines of the home and of work. They even improve on the classic third place by not only just allowing for conversation, but also collaboration, creation and remixing. They are using what Clay Shirky would call our
“cognitive surplus” towards new forms of creative endeavors rather than mere consumptive ones.
That sounds hopeful to me… SO…
The question remains, how can we harness the notion of a third place in the promotion of our institutions, departments and services? The key to answering this question lies in understanding that social media functions not just as a tool but as a platform. Social media is not just one-way information and content exchange. It is a technology and a medium that creates a space for rich content exchange and collaboration. It creates a place where individuals come together in community. In order to be successful, it must address what I refer to as the three rules of third places.
- Creates third places. Through developing your own technology, building your own network or using the pre-existing tools of an existing social network, one needs to create a space where individuals can come together in community. Creating the space and designing the type of interaction allowed within it (or selecting the tool that allows for it) is key to setting up the parameters for your community. After setting it up, be prepared to let go. As is the case with many virtual communities, its members will likely take it in unexpected (and often positive) directions.
- Attracts individuals to your third place. Once you’ve built your community, you need to create a reason for individuals to join it and keep coming back time and time again. What value added content, process or experience do you provide? This “value” need not be monetary. In fact, you or your organization need not even generate it. As is the case with many fan sites and communities online, individuals will create their own value and bring their own passion to the space.
- Identifies and connects with the most influential members of your own and other third places. Once you’ve built the space and amassed a community, the next step is to harness the most influential members of your community and of other communities. These individuals become your evangelists whose word of mouth becomes gold. They are the folks that others will follow. They are very actively contributing 1%. They are the ones who will build, enhance and promote your community’s value. You ignore them at your own peril, so tap them to help you grow your newly formed third place.
And one last point… Brand = Community
As I mentioned earlier, to correctly begin harnessing the power of the third place, one needs to begin recognizing that social media is more than just a tool, but a platform. Extending this concept, your students are not just your customers, but part of your community. Furthermore, your community IS your brand. The brand, by extension, becomes a third place itself. Cultivating a third place is cultivating your brand. In order to be successful in engaging with social media, one must recognize that these are all intertwined and those most successful in leveraging social media conceive of it in a very different way than just a new way of doing old media.