And I just read my first Nextdoor plea for martial law because the poster can’t afford to be out of work much longer.
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.
My local Grocery Outlet posted to Instagram a photo of their not-yet-ransacked paper towel and toilet paper aisle, in case you’re wondering how St. Johns is handling the pandemic.
I’m beginning to think that my repeated Mastodon itches aren’t actually about Mastodon but about wanting something social media isn’t providing. Even if, as I’ve mused, all the interesting people I know from my various and very different stages in life joined one Mastodon instance, so there’d be a worthwhile local community, I don’t think a social stream is what I want, or the thing that is missing. Maybe instead of repeatedly and apparently without any satisfaction musing upon Mastodon, I should be looking into a good, old-fashioned web forum.
Today during my purge of old website accounts and/or adjusting their profiles, I came across on Disqus an old comment of mine on a Mashable story from when Twitter announced they were going to make retweets a built-in function.
Unfortunately they’ve both over-thought it and didn’t think it through enough. Their “solution” is more database intensive than just coding a way to ape the way people already do it by hand (“RT @-username [original tweet text]“), and database traffic isn’t what Twitter needs more of, given their stability as it is.
What’s more, they fundamentally misconstrue how many people use retweeting – which is not just to pass along the original tweet but often, if there’s room, to comment on it as well. This “solution” renders that impossible.
Much like the asinine “users are too confused by the option to see all replies” debacle, Twitter’s only showing that it once again fails to understand how people are actually using their service.
Here I am again, getting punchy and restless and stream-of-consciousness searching for good Mastodon instance domains.
If you thought Nextdoor was racist only because your neighbors are racist, surprise! It seems that their search algorithm returns Chinese restaurants when searching for
Oh, I guess I found the real reason not to follow Mastodon accounts from Micro.blog, other than being able to follow me back not working: apparently there’s no Conversation view of things Mastodon users post, because Micro.blog doesn’t pull those other posts in. So, back to trying to find a Mastodon instance for this.
Not for nothing, but in fact I do take issue with phrases such as the Twitter community or the contention that one exists, because I think it devalues the word. (We all know my various pet peeves about not devaluing words by diluting them into nonspecificity.) Twitter isn’t a community, its a userbase. There are communities — plural — on Twitter, to varying degrees, but there’s neither a Twitter community, a Facebook community, nor a Tumblr community.
[…] You also talk in the book at length about the labor that goes into growing and maintaining digital communities like MetaFilter or Reddit. Of course, almost all that labor is uncompensated. How did this enthusiastic volunteerism of spaces like Echo in the ’90s become this economic engine of the internet years later?
I have really complicated feelings I tried to work out through that book, in the sense of volunteering as quite beneficial if it is for your own space. If you’re having a gathering or a party, you clean up afterward, as it’s your apartment. But that’s the nature of scale… when you get to that level that there are too many, say, beheading videos that we can’t make sure a platform is cleared of all of them, to me that’s evidence this is out of control and should be shut down. This is not a real community, it’s not organized by people who have their sense of values or through shared space. But on the other hand there are so many people who find imperfect tactics for maintaining spaces similar to Echo or those smaller ‘90s platforms.
This does seem to be the nature of the divide in thinking. Online community doesn’t scale. Or maybe we should say that persistent communities don’t.
Temporary or transient communities might, if only because they tend to be purpose-driven and if the problems of abuse and moderation arise within them they don’t last long because the communities themselves don’t last long. Any sort of ongoing concern, however, seems to have its limits.
One of the things that distributed efforts perhaps have a better handle on is that platforms aren’t communities but they can host communities if each community has access to community-building — and community-protecting — tools. But if the communities must rely on the platform handling all moderation and policing, it’s difficult if not ultimately impossible for communities to take hold.
Upon reflection, I might be more inclined to follow Mastodon accounts from Micro.blog if anyone from Mastodon were able to follow me back.
This afternoon I was struck by an anecdote in the eighth chapter of Frank Chimero’s breezy The Shape of Design in which he describes encountering a rendering bug in what for all intents and purposes and maybe in actuality is Instagram; the profile photos of people who had followed Chimero or “liked” his posts were shown grossly out of proportion to the design’s intent.
[…] That one simple change made me feel a part of this photography framework and the community it sustains. Seeing the faces of the ones who liked my photos made me part of a web of mutual appreciation. The people snapped back into focus as individuals.
I began to think about the screen’s original design: it had information density, but it wasn’t a suitable representation of personhood. The design was optimized for consumption of information rather than thankfulness for the interactions and relationships it depicts. Appreciation is a significant aspect of positive experiences; if the design choices have been optimized for consumption instead, it turns an opportunity for nourishing collective resonance into a gesture of empty snacking.
Indeed, as I look at my Instagram notifications tab, the framework actually smushes notifications together into groups. Instead of seeing who engaged with a post. I see the name of one person and then merely the number of additional people. Instagram believes in the thrill of quantity rather than the warmth of quality.
I wish Amy Klobuchar well in her new career as an Instagram influencer in the field of artisanal salad combs.