“If you build it, he will come.” In contention for being one of the most frequently misquoted movie phrases of all time, wiser heads will know this sentiment is certainly not the case. Stadiums, restaurants, or online ventures – the simple act of building is almost never enough to guarantee success. Similarly, it’s a common misconception when it comes to online engagement that because your website / social network / consultation / survey is there people will engage with it. While I can’t profess any knowledge of filling stadiums (or restaurants for that matter), I can offer brief insight to understanding the nature of engagement online. In order to do this, we first have to understand how people get civically motivated. And as participants, how we then understand and enable them to engage in the wider debate.

In essence, it’s all about space. In 1989, Ray Oldenburg published a book called The Great Good Place.1 It’s a rather straightforward book that states in simple terms that what we get up to outside of the two normal places – home and work – will play important roles in shaping civil society and civic engagement. What was interesting about this Great Good Place, or ‘third place’ as it was later termed, was that it could generally be anything. Be it a sports team, dance group, book club, even just meeting with the regulars down at the pub, this ‘third’ place was as important to civic engagement as voting.

As Oldenburg saw, crucial to the success of the third place in facilitating discourse were some key traits. It was a neutral space: you’re not obliged to be there, you can leave whenever you want, and you’re not tied politically, financially or legally to it. It was also a leveller: there was no impetus placed on social standing or hierarchy, and there were no obstacles to join. It was accessible and available when you wanted it. There were regulars who by default set the tone and mood. And finally, but no less importantly, it was playful: diffusing any tension with jokes, old yarns and some crack up banter.2 It’s here in the third space that people felt most compelled to share their opinions, debate social concerns, and form a triangulated understanding of community issues.

It’s been almost a quarter of a century since Oldenburg wrote about the Great Good Place. Unsurprisingly, within that time there have been a lot of books written about the supposed decline of the ‘third place’ (think Putnam’s Bowling Alone) and immense technological innovations which have reshaped nearly every aspect of our lives including community engagement.3 However, whilst it may well be true we are less physically aligned or tied to traditional networks, we are more connected than we have ever been through the internet – the great third space. As Scott Wright notes, the internet may not have been what Oldenburg originally envisaged the third place to be, but it certainly exhibits a number of characteristics which made the Great Good Place critical to civic engagement.4

The internet itself has long been touted as the great democratiser: provided you have access to the internet there are no obstacles to joining social media networks or starting your own. For the near future at least it remains a neutral space: you’re not tied politically or legally to it. It’s accessible whenever you want and available in a variety of formats and devices. Above all else, however, humour is its most valued commodity. So what can we take away from all of this?

  • Firstly, that it’s important to understand the community and the space in which you are trying to engage. Are you providing a neutral space; are you tying people in to anything which they may want to freely leave? And in order to participate, are you forcing them to hand over information which they would otherwise not want to share?
  • Secondly, are there obstacles to joining your space? Is it a welcoming space and how easy is it to access? Furthermore, is it accessible when people want and in a format which they want to use?
  • While you may not have regulars in the space you are providing yet, are you a regular in someone else’s space? If you want to engage young voters for instance are you yourself regularly and genuinely active in their spaces such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc? Perhaps you are trying to engage a more niche community. Do you understand their space and are you willing to replicate their needs in your own?
  • And finally, playfulness goes a long way. Be prepared to have a sense of humour about things and when all else fails post a picture of a cat to your Facebook feed.

1 Oldenburg, Ray (1989). The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. New York: Paragon House.

2 Ibid.

3 Putnam, Robert (1995). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community New York: Simon & Schuster.

4 Wright, Scott (2012). From “Third Place” to “Third Space”: Everyday Political Talk in Non-Political Online Spaces. Jav-Nost The Public Vol.19 (2012), No 3, pp5.