Finding Our Place in the World, Part 2: Place in an Onsite-Online World

November 6, 2011

Many of us, having incorporated online communities into our professional and personal lives, reach the moment when we decide that the idea of place is dead—that geography no longer matters.

But it doesn’t take us long to realize we’re wrong. And reading and thinking about Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision in Your Life (2008) drives the point—and us—home. Florida, continuing to focus on the role creativity plays in making communities vital, vibrant social and economic centers, writes clearly and engagingly as he points out how “spiky” the world remains in terms of having peaks of social and economic centers that offer opportunities not to be as readily found in the valleys that exist elsewhere.

“Today’s key economic factors—talent, innovation, and creativity—are not distributed evenly across the global economy,” he reminds us (p. 9). “They concentrate in specific locations” including centers of innovation such as Tokyo, Seoul, New York, and San Francisco (p. 25). There are also mega-regions that continue to thrive, including Boston-NewYork-Washington-Baltimore, Osaka-Nagoya, Frankfurt-Stuttgart, and several others he cites throughout his book.

“More and more people are clustering in urban areas,” he writes (p. 18), and that clustering encourages people “to do more than they otherwise would, such as engage in more creative activities, invent new things, or start new companies—all things that are both personally fulfilling and economically productive…This creates a regenerative cycle: the stimulation unleashes creative energy, which in turn attracts more high-energy people from other places, which results in higher rates of innovation, greater economic prosperity, higher living standards, and more stimulation” (p. 159).

This won’t be news to those familiar with Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and just about everything he has written, William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988), Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place (1989), Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect, or writing colleagues and I have done on the proposed Fourth Place in our lives—the social learning centers that serve as our onsite-online sources of learning opportunities in a world where continual learning is one of the keys to success.

But it does remind us that the geography of place is far from dead—even if it now so clearly co-exists with place as an online construct through the sort of communities and associations I wrote about two days ago to describe my own onsite-online sense of community and professional family through the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

As is the case with so many blanket statements we make and eventually have to recant, the role of place in our lives is evolving to accommodate that sense of place that includes onsite as well as online places. Rather than creating either-or distinctions here, we’ll find ourselves on terra firma and in terra virtual if we see place in a blended seamless way. The place we call home. The places we temporarily join when we travel to work. The third and fourth places in our lives—those coffee shops, restaurants, community centers, and social learning centers which so clearly contribute to our onsite-online place in the world. And the online places that facilitate the connections that matter most to us in terms of making us members of a variety of interconnected world-wide communities of learning, interest, and practice. With a renewed appreciation for all that home offers in this still evolving onsite-online world.


Community, Collaboration, and Learning: Time for the Fourth Place

August 15, 2010

It appears to be time to further develop what Ray Oldenburg initiated with The Great Good Place. That wonderful and still-influential book, first written and published more than twenty years ago in a pre-World Wide Web era, suggests that our first place is our home, our second place is where we work, and our third place is the treasured community meeting place where we, our friends, and colleagues come and go. The idea of the third place has been embraced by many, and has a counterpart in “the Intersection,” which Frans Johansson describes in his own more recently published book, The Medici Effect, as a place where people of differing backgrounds meet, exchange ideas, and, through their intersection, develop and disseminate new ideas.

What seems to be ripe for development now is a complementary fourth place: a community gathering place for social learning. The idea for this version of a fourth place (more about other versions in a moment) came out of a discussion two days ago with colleagues participating in the latest episode of Maurice Coleman’s biweekly T is for Training podcast—which, in its own way, has become an online third/fourth place for an ever-expanding community of learners comprised of those involved and/or interested in workplace learning and performance in libraries.

The potential development of the fourth place as community gathering place for social learning is worth exploring in and of itself since it embraces all that the concept suggests and it serves as an online example of what both Oldenburg and Johansson describe in face-to-face settings. Coleman’s latest podcast began with a handful of us discussing what we would love to see discussed at the annual Computers in Libraries  conference, to be held in Washington DC in March 2011. Because T is for Training colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl, who serves as Assistant Professor of Practice in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and is involved in planning the conference, was participating in the discussion, we quickly started dreaming about topics that have been on our minds, including the idea that “Computers (and Humans) in Libraries,” with a strong emphasis on listening to what library users want from libraries, might open some doors and eyes. As if on cue, the remaining participants—Coleman, Library System of Lancaster County Training Coordinator Stephanie Zimmerman, Statewide MarylandAskUsNow! Coordinator Julie Strange, and I—were joined in our Intersection by a contributor who had not previously called in during one of the live online sessions: someone who identified himself as Rutgers University student Walter Salem.

Salem was exactly what we were seeking: a person who is not involved in training but who expressed a passion for what libraries are, what they have been, and what they are becoming. While he was commenting via the audio portion of the program, a few of us noted via the typed chat that he seemed to be describing Oldenburg’s third place, and we actually suggested that to him. At that point, he corrected us by emphasizing that what he really loved was the sense of a place where he was surrounded by learning and the potential for learning, and that’s where we started translating his thoughts into something concrete for libraries and any other onsite or online community willing to use all the tech and human tools available to us.

“Maybe we’re looking at a ‘fourth place’: the educational community meeting place where members of the community gather,” I suggested via the typed chat.

“The interesting thing is that this ‘fourth place’ can be anywhere,” Hurst-Wahl immediately typed back. “It needs to be a ‘place’ where there are resources (people, books, computers, etc.) to connect people to the knowledge that they want to acquire.”

It didn’t take long for all of us to agree that this is an idea well worth nurturing and promoting, and Coleman had, before the live discussion ended, provided the refined fourth place definition with which we are working: “a community gathering place for social learning.” And while all of us were specifically thinking of the roles libraries could play as this sort of fourth place, it’s obvious to me that there’s room for fourth places of this level in almost any onsite or online setting where learners come and go, where they seek a community of support and a chance for Intersection-level exchanges, and where the place itself serves as and inspires communities of learning.

Curiosity, of course, compels us to immediately ask whether others have already toyed with the idea of a fourth Oldenburgesque place. The answer is yes, and one of them appears to have made its online debut just a month before we had our own Intersection moment: Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and other more recently published books, proposed his own version of a fourth place as a mixture of commerce and engagement. And writer-consultant Doug Fleener was actually five years ahead of us with a proposal of fourth place  as “a gathering place inside a store for customers who share a common interest in the products and services the retailer sells.”

So perhaps what we are working with are sub-sets of Oldenburg’s original third place—communities with specific interests. Or an entirely original version and description of the important places in our life. Or, perhaps with yet another nod to the brilliance of the entire Web 2.0 and Learning 2.0 phenomena, we’re looking at Place 4.0, and an acknowledgment that there is room for all three proposals described here: a series which begins with Place 4.1, Place 4.2, and Place 4.3, then continues with the infinite possibilities of places that are different, yet intrinsically connected to, what Oldenburg has set in motion.

Let’s see how many interesting Places this might take us or produce.

Updates: Jill Hurst-Wahl, on August 17, 2010, has continued the conversation on her Digitization 101 blog (at http://hurstassociates.blogspot.com/2010/08/community-collaboration-and-learning.html).


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