Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it

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.
Written by James Farrar, Contributor on

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.

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