I’ve set myself the daunting task of writing this in one go – its close to midnight and I’m finding it too easy to half-write drafts that never get further than that. So.
I went to Really Free School this evening to @dougald’s talk on ‘Third places, Web 2.0 and first life’, which masterfully spun a theme through those three concepts – loosely, that the internet is providing us with tools and a supporting infrastructure to start more and more reclaiming the ‘social space’, or our social selves, from the fragmentation to our lives caused by the industrialisation, abundance of monetary wealth and the nuclear family, and rather than replacing real(first)-life social interaction, it is supporting and enhancing it. What’s more, it’s these third spaces that are not just about pub-style socialising, but socially-orientated ways of organising and doing that are the ones that have the resilence to thrive/survive/take over in any impeding societal ‘collapse’ (for more on the collapse theme, see Vinay Gupta’s Dark Mountain talk here, and indeed the whole Dark Mountain project). What’s even more, this move can help us recover a lost, ‘natural’ inclination to sociability, or intimacy. With apologies to @dougald for the inevitable inaccuracies of a subjectively remembered hasty summary.
A few of other highlights from the talk:
- Starbucks cannot capture the essence of third place because a paid member of staff playing a role and working to a script can never have a sufficiently ‘real’ social character or embedded identity
- The advance of industrialisation and highly monetised existence means that rarely have we depended so much on having money in order to fulfil even our most basic needs for shelter and food.
- Some day we’ll realise that there aren’t actually any grown-ups who know what they’re doing.
My emotional response to the talk is a complex one, as has been my involvement with web 2.0 tools and supporting infrastructure. I share and identify with a lot of aspects of the social critique – but my initial response was sceptical: I feel from the perspective of my experience so far in London, that for the vast majority of people the impact social media will have on their levels of sociability and intimacy is minimal. It only seems to have a role because we’ve got imbalanced socially. In a world where we are by default strangers to each other, and people ignore you in a pub unless they already know you, twitter can be a good way to find connections locally – but I’d rather be welcomed and included in the place I am. In a world in which we live distinctly and separately from our friends, facebook can be a good way to sustain a background level of relationship – but I’d rather live nearer them and just share more of our lives in person.
But it is more nuanced than that, obviously, so here I’m just going to draw on a few points or themes which expand the discussion for me into areas I’d like it to go:
- The level of sociability and intimacy in a place is unlikely to be meaningfully impacted by an increased use of web 2.0 per se – but it is able to have an effect to the extent it can reconnect fragmented people to set the scene for relationships, and/or create/force different relationships of collaboration and cooperation that give rise to relationships between individuals involved.
- As was raised in the room, we are not necessarily social-by-default. My guess – others will have a richer more evidenced view – is that we are social-by-role-and-expectation. I think there’s a lot of work to do to take us from relationships of role/communication/information to sociality and intimacy and it has everything to do with the roles and expectations set up in the spaces we participate in, the ethic and attitude with which we participate in them, and very little to do with the technology – the technology affects who we can be social with at any one time. However:
- Dougald referred to an initially unfriendly cafe in which it takes time and relationship to earn trust and familiarity as being an example of third place real sociality. Time, relationships and familiarity seem key here to intimacy, not the ability to ‘like’. But there are ways in which the ‘background hum’ of nods, hi’s, retweets and comments on web 2.0 provide a general ‘presence’ which can play a similar role in the forming of relationships as just ‘being around’ locally does in the cafe.
- In shifting from role-and-money-based organisation to network-and-social-based organisation, we reintroduce a collective ethical question. It’s the starbuck’s staffs role to be friendly and welcoming, to create an atmosphere all are welcomed, ‘included’ and treated well. Our more chaotic network third spaces cannot rely on this role-play as a substitution for an ethic, and it is vitally important that they have one. We’re seeing this already in safer spaces policies and collective spaces that set out to include and welcome, but these are the self-select right-on vanguard of the movement. If we see this more and more, it’s worth being aware that for many, having to be sufficiently social/networked to gain approval in a space – let alone to buy bread or find a place to sleep – could be a cruel, tiring and isolating requirement.
That seems a bleak note to end on! I’m really quite excited about the new stuff that’s coming into existence as a result of these networks, discussions and new capability for connection. There’s the threads in all this to take us to a better place in the balance of ourselves, our work and roles, places and social selves, but it’s a widespread collective development of empathy, combined with well-set-up spaces of intention with expectations and roles (there’s a better way of putting that), that will get us there.