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.