Scott Hanselman

The erosion of society and Internet as society's desparate attempt at a Virtual Third Place

February 28, '03 Comments [0] Posted in Musings
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The social scientist Ray Oldenburg talks about how humans need a third place, besides work and home, to meet with friends, have a beer, discuss the events of the day, and enjoy some human interaction. Coffee shops, bars, hair salons, beer gardens, pool halls, clubs, and other hangouts are as vital as factories, schools and apartments ["The Great Good Place", 1989]. But capitalist society has been eroding those third places, and society is left impoverished. In "Bowling Alone," Robert Putnam brings forth, in riveting and well-documented detail, reams of evidence that American society has all but lost its third places. Over the last 25 years, Americans "belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often." [2000] For too many people, life consists of going to work, then going home and watching TV. Work-TV-Sleep-Work-TV-Sleep. It seems to me that the phenomenon is far more acute among software developers, especially in places like Silicon Valley and the suburbs of Seattle. People graduate from college, move across country to a new place where they don't know anyone, and end up working 12 hour days basically out of loneliness.

So it's no surprise that so many programmers, desperate for a little human contact, flock to online communities - chat rooms, discussion forums, open source projects, and Ultima Online. In creating community software, we are, to some extent, trying to create a third place. And like any other architecture project, the design decisions we make are crucial. Make a bar too loud, and people won't be able to have conversations. That makes for a very different kind of place than a coffee shop. Make a coffee shop without very many chairs, as Starbucks does, and people will carry their coffee back to their lonely rooms, instead of staying around and socializing like they do in the fantasy TV coffeehouse of "Friends," a program we watch because an ersatz third place is less painful than none at all. [Joel on Software]

All I have to say is wow.  I think it will take a while for me to digest this.  It's yet another of those "doh" moments from Joel when he's expressed something that's obvious, but unsaid.   Sure, we talk about the decline of family values, and that people just aren't "as nice" these days; but when I think back to the "third places" that were mine...small sub shops owned by friends, non-Starbucks coffee houses, greasy spoons, etc...they've all slowly been pushed out by Subway, Starbucks, and IHOP. 

I can really start to understand why someone who feels marginalized by society (re: erds, geeks, wonks, dweebs) would flock to the Dark Side - the ease of a chat room, compared to the compartive difficulty of a dance club or bar. 

Also, once one has started working 12 hours a day, sometimes it's all the energy one can muster to come home and receive your daily dose of "programming" from the idiot box (which apparently is offiically the MOST PASSIVE thing possible...it uses less energy than sleep!)  I don't think I watch THAT much TV, but then again, there's three different Law and Order series on TV right now, and with the help of my ReplayTV I don't think my wife and I have missed one in a while...I'll need to work on that...maybe go see what this "outside world" everyone is talking about has to offer...

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.