Ever since the birth of civilization, people have craved a sense of community. We’re social animals; belonging and togetherness are entwined in our DNA. And fulfilling this need has never been particularly difficult. From Sunday services to raucous nights at the pub, humans have always gathered in communal spaces to share the intricacies of their personal lives. These locales are a cornerstone of developing healthy societies, so much so that the sociological field has dubbed them “third places”. But in the 21st century, the advent of the internet and a worldwide COVID-19 lockdown have altered our perception of community in untold ways. So, does the newest generation have a “third place”? And if not, how could it shape their need for person-to-person connection?
In his 1989 book The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” in reference to social spaces separate from our homes and workplaces. A typical third place could resemble a local bar, a church, a gym, a bowling alley, or a public park. Spaces like these are essential to community spirit; they give us somewhere to relax, form new friendships, and catch up with acquaintances. They serve as a communal haven apart from our hectic working and domestic lives. And in the past, most towns had at least a few third spaces teeming with life. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, this very basic function of society came to an abrupt halt. No more conversations on line at a cafe, no spontaneous tournaments at the billiards table, no “peace be with you” in the pews. The majority of places where strangers would normally form connections evaporated into a network of isolated beings, traveling from bubble to bubble. The effects of this change were undeniable; according to the National Institutes of Health, there has been a clear increase in anxiety, depression, and substance abuse since the start of the pandemic. While there are certainly several factors at play, the mandatory shutdown has undoubtedly eroded some of the resources that keep our communities content. COVID has illuminated, among other things, our innate need for social time, face-to-face, outside of our personal spaces.
The pandemic, however, is not the only culprit when it comes to the eradication of the "third place". A 2016 Brookings article cites a combination of soaring real estate prices and "unfunctional zoning" as elements of this crisis. As Americans struggle to purchase homes, the municipalities around them encounter difficulties in funding community centers. Additionally, our increasingly car-dependent infrastructure has left our public transportation in disarray. If our trains and subway systems were fully efficient, safe, and wide-reaching, we'd find ourselves more often in the company of other human beings (and more likely to visit a third place that's simply a few stops away). Regardless of the primary reason for its decay, we're seeing a clear dissolution of the social glue that keeps our communities healthy and invigorated. And it's even more apparent that a lack of accessible third places contributes to the sense of division and isolation that many Americans are experiencing today.
We might not usually think about the bar on the corner or our local recreation center, but these resources have probably shaped our lives in an unseen way. For one, I have "third places" to thank for my very existence. When my father was navigating college in the 1980s, he found comfort in a hobby he could share with friends- bowling. One day, one of the team’s female bowlers unexpectedly quit, leaving a hole (no pun intended) in the roster. Lo and behold, the league's secretary decided to push her daughter into the empty slot. She begrudgingly joined the team, and through their days at the alley, she and my father quickly fell in love. Neither of my parents bowl nowadays, but that simple connection was the key to their future as a successful couple.
Their meet-cute is a story they delight in telling to this day- and it relies completely on a shared “third place”. Perhaps my parents might have crossed paths in another way, but it’s just as likely that it would have happened in a similar environment. Most people meet their significant others through a shared hobby or social connection, whether it be a college extracurricular or a "friend of a friend". So, in the age of shrinking communities and fewer "third place" activities, how is it that young people can find the same kind of relationships?
There's one alternative, albeit intangible, that we can point to as a potential third space for Gen Z. Social media platforms like X, Instagram, and Facebook have become a platform for exchanging ideas and meeting minds. Where people may have once met their future spouse in person, many have turned to dating apps like Tinder and Hinge in search of their lifelong love. I know someone who managed to develop a friendship solely through online gaming; although they'd never been in the same room, the game's virtual lobby enabled them to bond in a way that transcended their physical distance. Their connection was so genuine that they finally met in person; one of them took a cross-country flight to be a guest at the other's wedding. Considering Gen Z's digital literacy and online presence, this story is no longer an anomaly. It's evidence of how technology has shaped the way we relate to one another.
But is the internet a sufficient replacement for "third places" in the physical world? It may be too early to tell, but it seems that people of all ages have already embedded themselves in their digital communities. Think of the third place you know of in your town- the local park, perhaps, or your favorite restaurant. Have you observed the majority of people interacting with one another in these locations, or have you noticed them transfixed by their phones instead? Older generations may pin the problem on "kids these days", but the behavior seems to have spread across all age ranges. Our devices may have birthed a new form of social fulfilment- excitement at a text message from a friend, laughter at a tweet someone shared. We're establishing our sense of community in our devices rather than our neighbors. But none of us can predict what the consequences of this shift might be, nor if it foreshadows the erosion of our primitive human networks. Either way, we need a third place to connect, to catch up, to form bonds with the people around us. Perhaps we're coping with our isolation by carving out a third place in our back pockets. Not quite enough, not truly present, but social nonetheless.
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