As Oldenburg described in his book The Great, Good Place other than our home and work place, a “third place” where people can meet others and relax, for example the local coffee shop or local bookstore, is much needed and essential in human social relationships. There, people can escape from the many responsibilities of their daily lives and dive in to a casual environment to enjoy social ties with other people, and maybe even seize the chance to be a different person for a while. This literature, which was published ten years ago, has many implications for today’s computer-centric communities, as these online communities are indeed serving the need of a “third place” for people, and provide a public place for people to meet and interact.
Among all the online “third places” like forums or Wikipedia, I am most interested in the third place in social networks. At the center of popular social network sites like Facebook or Chinese social network Qzone are people’s personal profile pages, where people manage their contacts and post personal updates. They interact with their friends mostly through wall posting and messages; this personal profile page serves as the “home” function in these SNSs and people occasionally go to their friends’ “homes” to visit and say hi. Besides the profile page, there is also a Home page, which is constantly fed with news and updates from people’s friends, and it functions more like an information center.
The real third place for people on these SNSs to socialize and meet people outside of their current social circle actually lies elsewhere: they are the online game spaces and public pages created either by commercial groups or other institutions. After more and more people settle into their homes in these SNSs, these public third places that serve as the “cafes and bars” start to appear and take off. When people are gathering in poker rooms of Chinese SNS Q-zones’ online game space to play poker with each other, or when people are pouring their love or hate of a product onto a brand’s Facebook page, they interact with each other outside their “home” and outside their usual social circle. In these third places their social need for more casual ties with others is satisfied. People are also willing to pay these third places for the services they provide, for example, paying for virtual plant seeds in a Farmville game is essentially the same as paying for a bottle of beer to start a conversation in a bar, right? This might explain the rosy business prospects of virtual goods in the SNS world, because in these third places people are willing to pay for the social capital they gain. Building good third places on social networks for people to hang out and interact with each other is just as essential as building good third places in the real world to sustain people’s needs for a community.