The new third space: how social media is replacing real life communication

by Aini Yeskhozhina

What is “the third space”?
It’s the term first introduced by Ray Oldenburg in his book “The Great Good Place” in the late ’80s. The definition of the third place is a commonly occupied place, besides home (the first place) and work (the second place), that serves as a means of socializing and engagement. While, by that definition, any place of frequent attendance can be considered a third place, such as a gym, a club, or a yoga class, it’s not true . There are certain criteria that a place must meet.

Here are 8 characteristics presented by Ray:

  1. Neutral Ground. There is no obligation, whether financial or political, to be present. One attends the place whenever they want.
  2. A Leveling Place. There are no requirements regarding socio-economic status; anyone in that place is equal.
  3. Conversation as the Main Activity. It’s not required per se; it could be drawing, playing an instrument, and more. However, it should unite occupants in the space.
  4. Accessibility and Accommodation. It must be accessible for everyone, not expensive, with free entrance and departure.
  5. Regulars. frequently occupy the space and create a welcoming atmosphere.
  6. Low Profile. They are not fancy facilities that intimidate people; they are supposed to be cozy and accepting.
  7. Playful Mood. It’s the place where conversation flows freely, with no restrictions on topics unless they promote hostile behavior.
  8. A Home Away from Home. Attendees often experience a sense of comfort and belonging, like at home.

The birth of third places can be attributed to the opening of coffee houses. In 17th-century England, they served as a collective space where intellectuals and artists met to discuss current issues and new cultural discoveries.

A classic example of the third place in pop culture is “Central Perk” from Friends .

(Source: NBC)

Oldenburg emphasizes the significance of communal spaces in “the nurturing of human connections.” However, the book was published in 1989, and with the rise of technology and the recent pandemic, we are observing the disappearance of third spaces, as the author recognizes.

There is an undeniable substitution of face-to-face communication with online tools due to their efficiency, speed, and long-range coverage, contributing to the displacement of the third place. Some even call the internet “the new third place.” It’s not to say that third spaces ceased to exist, there is still a culture of physical third places in many European and Asian urban areas, with coffee culture in Italy and tea houses in Japan. However, the decline of attendance in third spaces is mostly attributed to the younger generation, who find an outlet for connection in social media.

Online forums (Quora and Reddit), groups, communities (Discord), or general social media (TikTok or Instagram) serve as means of communication and are accessible to most, fulfilling some of the criteria of the third space. It takes only minutes to find a group, a video, or an online discussion related to the topic of interest without spending time on a commute and dealing with the initial awkwardness that might follow the first meeting. Another pleasant feature is the anonymity of participation, allowing users to be more honest and vulnerable without the pressure of showing their faces or speaking. Besides, it provides time to fully form a coherent idea to express oneself without mistakes and seeming unintellectual.

Critics of the new third place, however, accuse it of the annihilation of civil society. Why do we feel safer expressing ourselves online? Why do we avoid real social interaction? And why are we unable to create relationships in real life?

In addition to the previously mentioned reasons favoring the use of social media, another is a noticeable decline in the attention span among the population. Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics and author of “Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity,” asserts that the internet is designed to leverage human thinking, using algorithms, to provide personalized information. The constant addiction to checking is fueled by dopamine spikes triggered by notifications. The rapid flow of information, continuous reminders, and personally tailored feeds keep us engaged, unlike in conversations, which are not as easily changeable. When a discussion topic doesn’t align with a specific interest, some individuals resort to “phubbing” – scrolling through their phone amid the conversation – signaling disinterest to the other person, further deteriorating relationships.

On another note, COVID has fully erased distinctions between the first, second, and third places. Now, many work remotely, confined to their houses, while some occupy public places to perform work. For example, many cafes with public access to the internet are now flooded by freelancers and remote workers substituting conversation with keyboard clicking, fully destroying the initial purpose of coffee shops, and shrinking the circle of social interaction to one place.

There are certain limitations of social media that make it an inadequate substitution for common spaces. Identity anonymity is good to a certain extent, but it can erode one’s personhood. Since there are almost no repercussions for opinions, one can cross moral and social borders, offending, bullying, and harassing others on the internet. Another drawback is never obtaining a full level of belonging, as all media groups don’t have restrictions for participants, some counting thousands of members, thus not fostering intimate connection. Physical places have limitations on the number of people they can host, creating much smaller and more connected communities.

Benjamin Berber, in his book “A Place for Us,” discusses the role of the third place: “Third-place friendships, first of all, complement more intimate relations. Those who study human loneliness generally agree that the individual needs intimate relationships and that he or she also needs affiliation. To affiliate is to be a member of some club, group, or organization. The tie is to the group more than to any of its individual members. There is a great difference between intimacy and affiliation, and there is no substituting one for the other. We need both. Lacking intimacy, affiliation becomes little more than a means of dulling the sense of emptiness in our lives. Lacking affiliation, intimacy becomes overburdened even as it risks the dullness or restricted human contact.”

Psychologist Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other,” also supports the claim that social media can’t substitute real relationships. She says, “We are sacrificing conversation for mere connection.” Humans tend to fulfill our desire for friendship through “connecting” to many and “flitting from conversations,” avoiding deep relationships and hindering our social development.

However, while social media can never substitute real third spaces, we can adapt the internet to facilitate the exposure of those places. In a paper titled “Rethinking Third Place in the Digital Era,” authors R.F.P. Hadi and E. Elisa observe a community space, Platform 78 Cafe, that creatively adopts technology for its purposes. Aside from general marketing through social media and inviting new participants to take part in the events of the community, they use tablets for art engagement. The layout of the facility, as well as movable tablets, facilitates conversations among participants regarding their drawings. The human-centered design creates a solution for the integration of technology in the third space.

(From the paper: “Rethinking Third Place in the Digital Era”)

What can be said is that “the third space” serves as a generator for community building and personal development. The gradual disappearance of physical spaces contributes to the perpetuation of loneliness, and in our quest to substitute this void of intimacy, we turn to social media connections that often fall short of fulfilling our genuine needs.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can leverage media to encourage real-life gatherings and foster meaningful connections. Seek out your local cafe, join a public book club, and engage in discussions – places where you can authentically create meaning and nurture a real connection.


Ducharme, J. (2023, August 10). Why our attention spans seem to be getting shorter. Time. 

Er, N. G. (2023, September 11). The third-place theory. Medium. 

Hadi, R. F. P., & Elisa, E. (n.d.). Rethinking third place in the digital era . Research gate . 

Oldenburg, R., & Christensen, K. (2023, March 22). Third places, true citizen spaces. The UNESCO Courier. 

Turkle, S. (2012, April 21). The flight from conversation. The New York Times. 

Search for an article

Posted Recently
where to find us

Would you like to join us or work with us? Don’t hesitate to send us a message!
Here’s our contact page