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17 January 2019
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Have we established the 'Fourth Place'?

19 November 2012 

A few weeks ago I mused here about developing the 'second place' and commented about the hijacking of Ray Oldenburg’s well established 'third place' for other purposes.

His debate flared up again on Twitter at the end of last week where, under the hash tag #worktech, there was further discussion about the misuse of both the term and the location.

The concept of the third place was well documented by Professor Oldenburg in his two books on the subject, and has been developed by others since. To set the scene, the first place is home and the second place is where we work, which the third place being somewhere between where we can socialise with others, one of the key issues being that we are away from the factors that affect us in the first and second places.

Now one of the obvious third places is a coffee shop, and these have been, as Oldenburg reasons, a place for an egalitarian meeting of minds for a long time (they were seen as an establishment threat for that very reason in the times of Boswell and Johnson).

The modern day equivalent coffee shop, and similar places, are being taken over by road warriors though, and their behaviour is far from social as they colonise every available space and isolate themselves as much as they can from other users as they selfishly claim their territory.

Such anti-social behaviour is diametrically opposite to the concept of the third place — and yet there are some in the IT and facilities management sectors who are staring to corrupt the term. Now, I have no real problem with the evolution of language and the drift of terminology to mean something other than the meaning of it that I have grown up with (for many years decisions were “up to me” to make and now they are “down to me”, just as one example).

However, what we have here is our profession taking a term that has been well established by another profession, Sociology, and radically altering its meaning. That does us no credit and I believe that we should make a positive effort now to stop this corruption of the third place, at least in terms of terminology (I am amongst the many who set up stall in my coffee shop chains of choice and will be working on this blog later whilst camped in a Holiday Inn lounge).

I have previously suggested that we may be creating a 'fourth place' as we seek to redefine the needs of those of us whose Second Place, the formal work environment of factory, office or wherever, has disappeared in favour of us being technology supported nomads.

The issue of folks creating virtual second or third places has already been noted by sociologists who have observed the colonisation of third places by people who communicate not with those around them physically, but with others elsewhere by means of text message, social media or telephonically or, in the first place, shun those around them there to do these things or to indulge in virtual gaming. Stories of parents texting their child sat just fifteen feet away may not be apocryphal.

My proposition that we perhaps consider the 'fourth place' may not fit with our sociology colleagues, for what we are talking about is a variant of the second place, but perhaps I should put the concept to them to debate. I shall pass it over the fence and see what happens.

For now though, can we as a profession stop our misuse of the term?

John Bowen is an FM consultant

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