Social Media as Vital Third Place


I have a hypothesis that our phones and our social media didn’t replace something we already had, they filled a void that already existed with something we needed. I’m not the only one making this hypothesis.

Long before iPhones and social media a shift started to happen in society. We experienced something often referred to as urban sprawl, or sometimes suburban sprawl. We moved away from each other.

Long, long ago we had lived in tribes, and small villages. Later we lived in cities often organized around ghettos and small communities. We often lived with other extended family members or at least lived very close by them. We lived in the same place where we worked. We had town squares and “third places”, places where we could naturally and freely gather and socialize. We’ve lost a lot of that.

Social media is not some radically new thing, it is a third place repackaged.

The third place is the place that is not home and not work. It is the place where friendships are forged. It is the space where ideas happen, where growth happens, where revolution happens. It is in this space that we learn our own sense of place in the world. We need third places.

We have far less of these third places now than in the past.

In order for something to be a third place it has to meet certain requirements. Namely, it needs to be free or inexpensive, highly accessible (as in walking distance from many people), it has to have “regulars”, it needs to be welcoming and comfortable and it needs to be a place where you would meet both new and old friends. I believe that social media meets all of these requirements and provides us with a third place that spans the distances we were already placing between ourselves.

This shift, this spreading out and moving away from our centers of family and community, was already happening before social media - our technology just sped it along and gave us a way to continue connecting with people.

In neighborhoods where neighbors drive into their drive ways and close the doors, in communities devoid of third places, in a city infected with suburban sprawl where you have to drive to get anywhere, meeting people is made more difficult.

As a mom to two young kids, slave to things like nap time and bed time, not to mention the daily responsibilities of a child with special needs, there are constant obstacles to developing friendships. Obstacles placed there not by social media, but by the way that we live our lives now.

I don’t live in a small village or in an urban center. Target might be the closest thing to a third place in my neighborhood. Without social media my ability to interact and connect socially, to build and maintain relationships would be greatly hampered.

Often people argue that if we didn’t have our phones and our technology and our social media to distract us we would socialize more, but I am not sure that is actually true at all. Socializing is something that largely happens in third places. We lost our third places (or at least many of them) long before the advent of social media. Without social media we would still be lacking in third spaces.

The truth is social media serves as a third place in my life and in our society. A third place that isn’t provided to us in any other way at this time in history. A third place that sociologists and physiologists alike would say that we need. A third place that I need.

It enables me to stay in touch with people far away. It enables me to have some small adult interactions amidst a day filled with children’s books, children’s songs, and therapy sessions. It enables me to meet other like minded people, and to come in contact with those who disagree with me. These things are life giving for me. At this stage in my life, and in a society that provides few opportunities for connection, I would struggle to have these sorts of social interactions without social media.

So, no I won’t be canceling my Facebook account, or cutting back on my Instagram.

I will go on date nights with my husband and have genuine and authentic conversation with him, but I will also take a picture on my phone to remember our time. I will have water fights in the backyard with my kids, but I will also finish the conversation I started with someone in blog comments when I’m done. I will make homemade dinners and sit down with my family to eat, but I won’t be finding my recipes in cooking books, they will be from Pinterest. And I will invite people over for dinner parties, but I’ll also jump in on the occasional Twitter party now and then.

Because social media and technology are not the enemy. They are to be used wisely and in balance, but they are a valuable third space fulfilling a vital need.

Rejoicing in the journey, Bethany