In his book The Great Good Place, written almost twenty years ago, Ray Oldenburg wrote about the great “third place” in our lives — not home, not work, but a third place where we relax and socialize with others– barbershops, coffee houses, parks, etc. A place to have civil discourse with others in our locale — talking and shooting the breeze both with those who think like us but also with those who do not share our perspective on all things. Oldenburg laments that these third places are diminishing in popularity.
At the same time, some have suggested that maybe we should not call for coffee shops to return but perhaps it is churches who ought to re-create this third space – that besides work and home the person ought to be deeply connected to a faith community. The characteristics of the third place: a source of renewal, banter, serious discussion, all happening within walking distance from the home, ought to characterize the church — not just the secular third place.
No doubt, we must agree with Oldenburg — our participation has diminished in third places. Where are we spending our time? We are not just bowling alone, as some would say. Many are finding a sense of community online. They are spending their free time catching up with their friends and acquaintances on social networking sites, and increasingly that is Facebook. Has Facebook become this third place? Quite possibly, with some major tweaks. Although it is a place of deep connection and identity formation, it is definitely a different kind of space than the barbership or the physical church building.
As danah boyd (intentionally lowercase) has said, “networked publics” differ from physical communities in at least four ways: persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences. Persistence – people have access to you 24/7. Searchability — people can find you and what you are up to. Replicability – what you write/say/photograph/video can be copied again and again. Invisible Audiences — you have no sense of who is staring at you – who is reading your wall – is it your friend, boss, or grandma?
Clearly, these four aspects of online social networking offer a different understanding of community than Oldenburg — they limit some aspects and augment others. Could it be that we are seeing not a poorer sense of community, just a different kind of community emerging?
Just as some envisioned the church as Oldenburg’s type of community offline, what about envisioning what the church can be through boyd’s categories? Clearly, to dream of Oldenburg’s community in an online environment is nostalgic and misses the mark. How about dreaming about what God might be doing in these four new aspects of ‘networked publics’: cultures of persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences?
To compare online community to offline community has limited benefit. Online community will always be significantly different than its offline counterparts. But might we see God’s goodness there, might we see practices of forgiveness, service, love of of the other? Of course, redemption is possible in any culture. Better than holding up online community to an arbitrary standard, perhaps we need to spend some time re-imagining what the reign of God might look like in these new virtual cultures.