Smartphones have transported us from an offline third place

My new job has turned me back into a bus commuter for the first time in 7 years. My last experience as a daily bus rider was when I worked at Vision Critical for the first half of 2005, just after finishing my Ph.D.

Back then, I was fresh off grad school and the heady conversations about social capital that were all the rage in a certain corner of political science. That was especially true in my department, where the research for Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone employed half a generation of graduation students, including me. Putnam’s take on the Internet’s impact on social capital was ultimately more skeptical than my own, but the opportunity to research all the early investigations into that question fed my own practice for the next decade.

While Putnam addressed the emergence of online public spaces, he gave more attention to our offline civic culture — including the idea of the “third place” described by Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg inspired his own torrent of research and experimentation, hinging on the argument that a healthy democratic culture requires “third places”, neither work nor home, in which conversation and community can unfold. Starbucks aspired to be be our contemporary version of the third space; others, like Howard Rheingold, have seen something of the third place in the emergent communities of the Internet.

In retrospect, the buses of 2005 were, if not a third place, then a two-and-a-halfed place. Two passengers might engage in a spontaneous conversation; one rider might help another lift a stroller onto a bus. If nothing else, random eye contact was a reminder that we are all in this together — quite literally, at least for the next twenty minutes.

What’s changed since 2005? The iPhone, the Blackberry, the advent of Android and the general onslaught of smartphone fixation — a fixation I share myself. Instead of looking up, out, or at each other, bus riders are engaged in their online lives. I hope they are spending that online time in meaningful third places, because we’ve just lost one offline.