Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it

Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it

Summary: Facebook claim their service in general and in particular the new geo locations service Facebook Places helps to rebuild social cohesion and civic life in the public space. At the launch event Facebook drew from the work of sociologist Ray Oldenburg. However, Ray Oldenburg profoundly disagrees.

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Could Facebook Places rebuild Main Street, USA and revitalize our fragmented communities?  I was excited to listen to Facebook’s VP for Product, Chris Cox, tackle these issues at the launch event of the creepy but cool Facebook Places. The introductory video was promising indeed with talk of the enablement of ‘another dimension of reality’ so that you may feel like ‘you're authentically there’.

More on the launch event: Facebook launches "Places," geo-location service that's both cool and creepy

Cox drew heavily on the work of the eminent sociologist and ‘pretty sharp dude’ Ray Oldenburg in explaining the significance and value of Facebook Places in building social cohesion. Oldenburg is an expert in the design and analysis of public places and advocates for their importance in the development of civic responsibility and democracy. Oldenburg’s theory is that we need these crucial ‘third places’  (3Ps) for the health of our communities and society at large. The first and second places refer to home and work. Industrialization and suburban sprawl of the last century has laid many of these important public spaces for third places to waste. Invoking the Edward Hopper Nighthawks painting and Ray Oldenburg Cox said:

The technology we were creating in the 20thcentury was in danger of destroying the third place.

And so step forward Chris Cox with Facebook Places:

The theory here and the entire goal of this product and in general of what we are trying to develop here is that the third place is alive and well and that technology can actually be the thing that pulls us away from the TV and out to night club or out to the concert or out to the theatre or out to the bar. That’s what we are most excited about. Technology does not need to estrange us from one another. 

Lightning in a bottle or hubris? In an email Ray Oldenburg himself was less than convinced with Facebook Places as a panacea for the declining third place:

While I can appreciate that Facebook certainly helps people keep in touch with one another, I'm left to wonder why the pitch began with the 3P idea.  I got a whiff of snake oil there for the matter of how Facebook ties to 3Ps is not made clear. 

Speaking more broadly about the relationship between Facebook as a service and his ideas of place:

I had nothing to do with Facebook and I resent the idea that it's a "place."  Real places unite people, electronic ones, because they are based on user choice, tend to be divisive; that is, to connect people who think alike and exclude others.  The term "virtual third place(s)" is common and most inappropriate."Virtual" means the same in essence and effect and that is far from the truth.

An issue Cox did not address is how the currency of our relationships with public spaces could be later used for commercial gain. When Mark Zuckerberg was later asked this very question the answer was telling:

Certainly you can imagine these things in the future. Certainly you can imagine these things you talk about....... we'll have to check back in on that again in the future.

The commercialization and privatization of public third places space for civic activity is an issue also examined closely by Naomi Klein in her watershed book No Logo. Its therefore hard to see yet whether Facebook Places is part of the problem or part of the solution. 

The issue of development and preservation of social cohesion has been a sticky (no pun intended) corporate sustainability outrider for some time.  The cut and thrust of market forces frays at the fabric of our culture and communities and little is yet understood about exactly how these forces work, how to measure them and how to ameliorate the impact at firm level.  In his keynote Cox joked about the unlikelihood of his engineers actually going to the sociology library at Stanford University to study these problems and the relationship between Facebook and the public space. Perhaps, the lost opportunity here is that they did not. Its never too late. 

You may watch the 7 minute keynote yourself here.

Topics: Legal, Emerging Tech, Social Enterprise

James Farrar

About James Farrar

James has more than 15 years of experience working on corporate sustainability issues from both the corporate and NGO campaigning perspective.

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12 comments
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  • "Inspired it"

    Shouldn't there be quotes around that part of your title?
    meshachw
    • RE: Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it

      @meshachw No
      jamesfarrar.1
  • RE: Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it

    I dont agree with him. There is no doubt in my mind that Facebook, even in its pre-"Places" form has done more for re-establishing a sense of community and re-invigorating what Robert Putnam calls "social capital" than any other single technology.

    The fact that we might even get encouraged for having an actual real "life" is an extra boon.
    paular8706
  • RE: Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it

    I find it interesting that Prof. Oldenburg's concept of "place" is so at odds with that of Facebook and so many other "social" sites on the net. He's spot on in his assessment of how "socializing" on the web actually balkanizes us, rather than bringing diversity to any given group of people. Almost all of us seem to gravitate toward people like us; we wind up self-selecting our ghetto-mates and confirming our own prejudices, notions, beliefs, and opinions because of the positive feedback given.

    On top of that, everything on the web is now being used as a vehicle for advertising products and services. Sure, something has to be done to pay the undeniable costs of digital communications, but don't we have too much product placement and promotion now? Is anyone concerned about the deadening of our senses as we unconsciously filter out the noise of the shrieking ads so we can hear the message we really want to access?

    The internet today is definitely in a state of flux. I don't have a clue what tomorrow's internet will be like, but if it's like the worst of today's, it's not going to be a place I'd want to live.
    Den2010
    • "Vehicle Of Adverstising..."

      @dbarr@... yep that nails it on the head for me. All these companies are looking to monetize all these "things" in some form or fashion. If we sit back and think they're just community building -- the first keg of "cool aid" has already been consumed!

      I still sit in amazement... that that many people would put that much private/personal information out into the wild. Off subject... just like twitter... I don't really care what time you got up this morning... what your first thought was when you rose... or where and when you're eating lunch.

      To a degree the whole social thing does the opposite in alot a ways of what we actually think it's doing. Trust me with Places... yeah ok you'll head out and meet some friends at a bar... wow low and behold a coupon has just shown up on your mobile phone ... "how'd they do that" ... right.

      In addition to the data you freely offer they're also datawarehousing another profile of you behind the scenes with tracking and other data.
      mhayes_z
  • RE: Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it

    yessir .. FB is just one more way for us to ignore one another .. as demonstrated time and time again. :-(
    bburgess66
  • RE: Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it

    Prof. Oldenburg is absolutely correct in his analysis of the third place and it is a logical conclusion from that argument that he would be suspicious of Face Book and other "virtual" places. Among the many definitions of the term "virtual" is "Not". Virtual places are not places for the reasons already mentioned. Ray spoke about this with Michael Feldman on his NPR show "Whatta You Know" and in response to the same cheer-leading about virtual places; Prof. Oldenburg said coldly "They're better than nothing." They are not face-to-face, they are composed of like-minded people who may or may not even exist, and they will not save our rapidly deteriorating public arena. If we did have such fake "places" as a popular alternative, the public clamor for the real thing might be much louder and we could be further along in the quest to regain those face-face places that are the essence of community.

    --chuckedgley@gmail.com
    chuckedgley
  • RE: Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it

    Prof. Oldenburg is absolutely correct in his analysis of the third place and it is a logical conclusion from that argument that he would be suspicious of Face Book and other "virtual" places. Among the many definitions of the term "virtual" is "Not". Virtual places are not places for the reasons already mentioned. Ray spoke about this with Michael Feldman on his NPR show "Whatta You Know" and in response to the same cheer-leading about virtual places; Prof. Oldenburg said coldly "They're better than nothing." They are not face-to-face, they are composed of like-minded people who may or may not even exist, and they will not save our rapidly deteriorating public arena. If we did have such fake "places" as a popular alternative, the public clamor for the real thing might be much louder and we could be further along in the quest to regain those face-face places that are the essence of community. <br><br>--chuckedgley@gmail.com
    chuckedgley
  • Everything old is new again

    Balkanisation?

    The net is just a communication tool, like phones and the sound waves and light waves we interpret as "face to face". In the old world, religions and political parties might fall into the "just hang out with like minded people" idea, but sports clubs and hobbyists have little to do with the personality and beliefs of a person, but are more about a shared interest.

    I belong to a number of online communities, but Facebook to me is no more than a bulletin board for existing family and friends. Gaming communities, on the other hand, offer an opportunity to socialise with a variety of people of different ages, sexes, cultures, backgrounds and political beliefs. A guildmate might be a right-wing, gun toting, survivalist (or a left-wing liberal) whose politics I find questionable, but s/he saved my butt many times in a number of dangerous (if virtual) situations and I've seen how s/he acts under pressure and work together with a team. They become my close friends because I've seen their true nature, rather than their age, sex, religion, words or their sometimes, to me, asinine beliefs.

    There may be silos of like-minded people out on the net, but there are also lots or other places where the net opens up new opportunities for social discourse, cultural understanding and friendship.

    Choose an MMOG and get all that while having fun ;-)
    tonymcs1
    • RE: Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it

      @tonymcs@...
      just1opinion
  • Games = Reality????

    Do you really think you learn about a person, or open your mind to differing viewpoints, through gaming?

    Just pulling the collective leg, aren't you?
    just1opinion
  • good idea about facebook

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    gavin.chan