Place Oddity (part 2)

The Fourth Place: what it is and why it is important

A little context for what follows. When the reporting of the business of Parliament was first permitted in 1787, Edmund Burke is (disputably) attributed to have referred to the press as the “fourth estate” –– the three estates to that point being the clergy, nobility and commoners. While the press could have, as citizens, been spawned from any of the three pre-existing estates by definition, the use of the term established an understanding in the language of the time, and one still in use today.

The three Places addressed in the previous post are “real” insofar as they are physical, tangible. Much has been said of both the totality and of parts of virtual, social, online “space” in relation to the physical, both in terms of the opportunities that enable it to overcome the inherent disadvantages of being somewhere, and the negative consequences of eschewing being somewhere. What I have not been able to find however, is an expression of elements of the virtual world in the language of the physical. Given that we have three clearly understood places, it appears to make sense, therefore, to consider it to be the Fourth Place. As we established with the Third Place however, its understanding might be misrepresented if left to the ochlocracy. Some clarification may be needed.

The first thing to be clear on is that Fourth Place is not the entire internet. As the Third Place, as Oldenburg describes, has qualifying elements, so too does the Fourth.

Yet it is fundamentally unlike the Third Place is one key aspect, as Oldenburg has acknowledged in interviews. Online social spaces attract like-minded people – we associate with people, particularly new connections, with the same professional or personal interests, and so create hubs (or Circles as Google calls them). The charm and energy within Third Places however is created by their diversity, and the fact that it tends to be common factors other than interests that bring people into those spaces – such as ambience, location, refreshment – but it’s not because, for example, everyone there is in HR. Even though most often are.

Here, then, are some suggested qualifying criteria for the Fourth Place:

  • Concerns the social use of the internet only, and its applications for the purposes of interaction with others – that is, open social networks that facilitate two-way communication, and self-publishing sites that facilitate comment and discussion
  • An expansive potential, such that networks can be grown, either with purpose or accidentally
  • Commonly available to all, for free, without barriers to entry
  • Allows complete freedom of speech and expression (some recent Twitter cases may cause some concern here)
  • Self-regulating – has no active administration or moderation applying arbitrary judgment as to the content
  • No compulsion to be there or to use the media

Are they accurate? And what others might there be? Given the above, the Fourth Place is not:

  • The technology of social media platforms – it is the human interaction that takes place within that defines it
  • Closed internet broadcast sites, that allow no response
  • Social media platforms that sit behind firewalls, and that are by definition exclusive (eg Yammer)
  • Moderated message boards

The Fourth Place, as described, straddles and permeates all three existing Places, complementing their appeal and usefulness – and occasionally threatening their contribution and cohesion. It continually gains in importance, reach and impact. We ever more frequently reside in the Fourth Place, in which we develop existing personal and professional relationships, and create new that may or may not be supported by face-to-face interaction. To this degree we often work in the Fourth Place too, albeit we clearly need to be somewhere physically too – even if so totally absorbed we pay little attention to, or have little need of, our environment.

Thomas Carlyle attributed to Burke the reference to the fourth estate with the comment “in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all” – one wonders if the Fourth Place may yet, in time, be similarly considered.

As for the rest of the internet – that’s just someplace else, too.


2 thoughts on “Place Oddity (part 2)

  1. Neil – thanks for your great insight into the fourth place, and I particularly like the qualifying criteria. I also enjoy adding new words to my limited vocabulary – I have to one day include ochlocracy into a conversation. Even spell check doesn’t recognise it.

  2. In my simple way I imagine the fourth place as the place where once I went to be alone with my thoughts and talk to myself, and where now I go to share my thoughts and talk to others.

    I was thinking about this one day walking along the street near my home a few years ago, pondering what virtual world and whether it wasn’t simply a faster way of doing the same things we’ve always done. And I concluded it is not. There is something here that is absolutely new – and its the Fourth Place. A hundred years ago the telephone started it and now in the 21st century we can find disembodied minds floating freely among other ‘presences’ (if you care to put it that way) interacting with them as the real living beings that they are, barely encumbered by their physical bodies. Like the ventriloquist is said to ‘throw his voice’ it occurs to me we are throwing our selves into another place and ‘being there’.

    I was reading Euan Semple’s book ‘Organisations Don’t Tweet, People Do’ at the weekend where i was pleased to find a chapter dweling on the same idea – and to discover (I hope I’m right in saying) that he, as I had more recently, found it a liberating experience with surprising consequences for our understanding friendship.

    So thank you for the criteria and I should only like to add the word ‘democratic’. I think its worthwhile describing and classifying these new places by what they are and what they do rather than the ‘bricks and mortar’ software and hardware that builds them. I think they are or will become as real to our minds as the physical world is to our senses and by defining we’re giving ourselves a language to understanding them, learn how to use them, value them and protect them.

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