A cafe during the French revolution. The coffee house in Friends. Your local pub. What do all of these have in common?
They’re all third places. They’re spaces which help communities and groups to build and retain a sense of cohesion.
Third places are not a new concept - The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg set out their importance way back in 1989. For a healthy existence, Oldenburg explains that people must balance between three realms, your home, your workplace, and a sociable space; a third place. This is where we interact with people and society, creating our own cultural identity.
While ‘work’ is a structured social experience and ‘home’ is private, third places are more relaxed environments in which people return to time and again to socialise. And it’s the regulars that make third places. It’s where conversations happen; you can chat to people from different backgrounds and form new spontaneous relationships.
When groups form around interests (think book clubs, running clubs, football clubs), it’s the availability of a third place that makes all the difference, somewhere physical to gather. As Oldenburg explores, we may be part of a number of groups, but those that have a third place make us feel more like part of a community.
Which is all well and good, I hear you say, but why is this relevant to social media and our approach in 2020 and beyond?
It’s all about the physical becoming the virtual, and yes, surprise surprise, Covid-19 is accelerating things. The global pandemic has escalated the importance of digital third places. How much did you miss going to the pub during lockdown? Probably a lot. And what did you replace it with? How did you socialise without seeing anyone in person? Probably (and this is a wild guess) a Zoom pub quiz.
Yes, chances are you turned to digital. Social is becoming truly social as our real lives shrink; travel becomes impossible, we’re unable to see loved ones in person, we’re limited to groups of six, if at all, and uncertainty reigns. Digital is our loophole.
By replacing the physical third place with the digital, though, we’re still looking for that same sense of community and exclusivity. Twitter as a whole is not a third place, but parts of Twitter are. It’s all about a sense of closed community, often niche interests, trust and cooperative ownership. Co-matter’s recent report on the Post-Social-Media age delves into how third spaces are evolving online amidst our need for safe and productive virtual spaces, in absence of the physical. These are not about growth, they’re about individual agency and conscious consumption. It’s the places that empower us to have a healthier digital diet that we’ll be rewarding with our participation.
But where will you find these new third spaces?
The answer is, quite simply, everywhere. From Reddit, where 2.2 million subreddits create connections across the globe, to Twitch as the Gogglebox of live streaming communities, to Animal Crossing, TikTok, Strava, Fortnite and, of course, Zoom. Podcasts cross the boundary between content and a beacon around which third places grow (being a millennial female, here’s a true crime example for you).
It’s clear that ‘social’ media isn’t just Facebook, Twitter and Instagram anymore, especially when it comes to creating third places. While ‘traditional’ social channels are the most widely used, it’s the media beyond that which people are often most invested in. To really speak to people and contribute to those niche communities, pushing beyond the expected is essential. 48% of 18-24 year olds are looking for online experiences to replace the things they did before the pandemic hit, creating new digital third places.
And brands are there as well.
You can wear a Glossier hoodie in Animal Crossing, while rocking Givenchy makeup, you can even model your character’s skin on your own, thanks to Gillette Venus. You can go to Brewdog’s virtual pub. Or enjoy some comedy and support a good cause at The Covid Arms with Beavertown. You can wield a Nerf gun in Fortnite (in real life too) while indulging in some Marvel fandom, or explore new game modes with Fortnite x Jumpman, or you can watch films in-game with friends, or you can go to a concert, or... by the time this blog is published, there’ll probably be six more Fortnite things to add to this list, which just shows how important it has become as a third place.
This is all very exciting as our horizons expand and social becomes wider and ultimately more social. But - of course - there are still ways to create those spaces on ‘traditional’ social media.
Twitter chats can serve as third places (see #ukrunchat or #oneminutebriefs). These are warm and welcoming places to connect over a shared interest on a platform that we all know tends to divide people.
Facebook held their Communities Summit recently and focused on the increased power of Groups during the pandemic. 1.8 billion people are now using Facebook Groups every month, up from 1.4 billion this time last year. Alongside location-based groups or niche interests, branded private Facebook groups are becoming more common. Here's one example from skincare; in this case creating a ‘closed’ community with a joining questionnaire, making it more exclusive. Instead of aiming to grow as much as possible, it’s a case of quality over quantity.
As co-matter argues, if we’re entering an age of post-social media, we’ll be looking for spaces that are designed to stay niche and not to scale. These spaces will give you the ability to build deeper connections and stronger identities the more you engage and participate. And the platforms are already recognising this is something that brands need to take seriously.
Just look at how Facebook is adapting. Facebook announced that their Brand Collab Manager will now include Public groups, bringing groups, communities and brands together more closely (they're investigating extending this to private groups too). The fact that Facebook has recognised the importance of groups right now, and has expanded its collab tool in response, signals how they see audience behaviour evolving on their platform, moving more towards these digital third places.
As we enter a winter where physical connection will be even more difficult (Who wants to sit in a park in December?), digital third places will become ever more important. But brands entering these spaces need to do so in good faith. It’s not about data collection, generating revenue, or directly bringing in more sales. As we’ve seen, they need to be making a positive contribution; whether that’s enriching an existing space, or creating a new one around a core connection with their audience.
And to find these new third places, people will first turn to evolutions within platforms they already know, which leads me to suspect we’re not going into a ‘post-social’ age, just another evolution of what social media means to us.