Novel Coronovirus: 1, Third Places: 0

What I was getting at earlier today was that even actually-autistic people with social anxiety and performance distress (let alone those who also are introverts) have regular and familiar places other than home or work which form a crucial part of the identity of our routine lives. Places which, reasonably, now are forbidden to us in the name of the public health.

For me, I don’t do to these third places to socialize; they’re just a way, I suppose, to experience and absorb — and enjoy — a sort of controlled, predictable variety. They’re also a way, I think, for each of to be be seen, the act of which itself helps cement us to the word: you see me, so yes, I am really here.

This effectively, or emotionally, is the context in which I read Kathy Aney, reporting for the East Oregonian on Pendleton, Oregon’s, Rainbow Cafe’s defiance of bar and restaurant restrictions which went into effect here just as St. Patrick’s Day was arriving.

It’s not that I’m defensive of their decision to buck the order; it’s that I understand that for places like the Rainbow the emotional conflict is between what became in that moment a pair of competing social contracts. Denizens of third places are there if not for each other, per se (although they can be that), then to be in the place created by each other’s presence.

Third places are not disposable or, strictly speaking, replaceable netherworlds.

By that very token, though, this implies a kind of responsibility toward one another, a being subject to one another. — which, after all, precisely is what social distancing measures are all about.

Bill Lascher, writing for Fortune Magazine (and whom I know primarily because of another kind of third place which I used to manage), looks at the world of competitive pinball in the age of social distancing, and while I wouldn’t consider the tournaments themselves to be third places, many of the places from which pinballers come surely are. (And while temporary events assembling in what otherwise would be mere space surely can become transient places, I’m not so sure they properly can be considered true third places, which are an artifact of regular, every day life.)

Lascher notes that while the playing of pinball itself necessarily is a physical thing, the community of pinballers exists online, too. Not all physical third places have virtual ancillaries or corollaries, though.

Interest-based communities often traverse the online world and the offline, but when we’re talking about people who frequent “coffeeshops, gyms, and neighborhood stores” they don’t also tend to congregate online in the time between visits, business-run Instagram feeds notwithstanding. Lascher suggests that third places “are defined less by the walls enclosing them than by how people connect within them” but I’m not entirely sure I agree — those connections most often in fact are contained within those walls. You might make a new friend at the bar and so they exist for you elsewhere in your life, too, but you are not best buds with every other patron, nor do you necessarily even think about them very much.

Ian Hamilton, reporting for Upload gives a glimpse at a somewhat unexpected third place: the VR arcade. Social distancing measures are tough to enforce when you’re not only congregating in one place but sharing equipment which touches your face, and I admit I almost posted this piece on its own because it — yes, again — made me think of Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day which (as I’ve noted ad nauseam) renders a post-pandemic world where social distancing measures never were withdrawn, and all public congregating occurs via VR — everyone, of course, having their own VR headset.

It’s interesting, in that context, to note that Lascher mentions pinball’s joking about modern-day speakeasies should social distancing measures continue unabated for some time. This, too, happens in A Song for a New Day.

At any rate, this collapse, then, of the physical third place inevitably raises questions about the virtual alternatives.

Nadia Eghbal examines the question of “internet friends” in her most-recent newsletter, and the question is a confusing one for me because my first-ever internet friends in very short order also became in-real-life friends, even if the vast bulk of our interactions happened online — sometimes even when in fact we were in the same physical location.

We have third places online, too, although, paradoxically, I think fewer of them than we had twenty years ago. Spaces have overtaken places in our online activity, or at least it takes a more particular sort of effort to create place amongst and amidst all this space. Twitter, for instance and because it’s somewhat central to Eghbal’s piece, isn’t a place, although depending on how you manage your follows you can create a kind of mental place on it.

The difference, though, is that in offline places you actually don’t have the kind of control you do in online spaces; you might hang out with a handful of people at the bar, or coffeeshop but other people are there, too, and contribute to the placeness of it.

(I’m going to refrain, for now, from addressing too directly or with much involvement Eghbal’s vague derision of blogging for not being “social” enough. She seems to place a high value on the fact that social platforms provide things like follower counts to ascribe value. What I really want to ask her is: do you ask people you meet offline how many other people think they are cool or interesting or worth their time, or do you make your own determination and leave sheer numbers out of it?)

All of this sort of comes back around to where I began, which was with the fall of the physical third place in a time of social distancing.

I’ve spent the last week with the app Colloquy open on my laptop whenever my laptop is in use. It’s opened to the IRC channel for my first-ever online community, the one I mentioned above where my internet friends also were my offline friends.

This past week, there’s been a reunion of sorts. The channel (which always originally was just an adjunct to the internet BBS of which most of us were a part) has existed more or less consistently since the beginning, I think; certainly in recent times there’s apparently always been a couple of people in there, even if they were not paying attention.

For a full week now, however, the channel has been repopulating, as first a few ventured in, then they reached out to others, then still others just sort of got the idea on their own to see if the channel still was there. Some have maintained connections to each other over the intervening two decades, many not.

In the absence of many or most or all of our physical third places, we’ve reassembled an old virtual one. It’s not, of course, the same. But just as much as we argued back then, when far fewer people would have agreed, before in fact most people have come to agree, it still in many ways is just as real.

It won’t suffice. It can’t. No matter how far social distancing goes, no matter for how long it lasts, this isn’t sustainable. The physical third place will have to return, resume, somehow. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t even know how many of the third places we know even will survive the pandemic, but there’s only so long efforts like donating a “slice-it-forward token” with every pizza sold can keep third place businesses and communities afloat.

“When you run a gathering spot,” pinball parlor owner Alan Robertson told Lascher, “it kind of takes on a mind of its own—you have a clientele that remembers all its times there.”

As confessed to Any by Joanne McGee, owner of the Rainbow Cafe, “I’ve worked so hard for this place.”

So say them all.