Making a Great Good Place

In The Great Good Place 1 Ray Oldenburg looks at several types of real life places (such as cafe’s, coffeehouses, the local pub) and distills what makes them great and why we need them. The notion of a third place, between work and home life, fills a social void.  It is an easy read and community managers will recognize a lot of similarities, indeed many have done so already.2

Here’s a quick take on the 8 characteristics and how one could use them to make an online community better:

Neutral Ground:
Oldenburg means that the people in the community are free to come and go to this third place.  They are not beholden to being there.

A CM, much like a bartender, is understood to be part of the business. However, I would advise against giving typical members financial incentives for participating. Further, activities and projects the community participates in need to not require particular individuals to carry them forward. For example one might use a wiki over a document with an editor for a community FAQ.

Luckily, on the Internet no one knows you are a dog,  so a lot of the class/race/ethnic/appearance biases do not quickly come about. You may promote this by not asking for occupation in one’s intro or profile, highlight areas of commonality, and convey that your status in the community is based on the effort you put into the community.

Where there may be reason for distinctions based on occupation, say a doctor in a healthcare community, care must be taken to properly utilize expertise only in the areas where it is warranted. While I would defer to a doctor’s opinion on a dosage, I may highlight the ramifications a patient may feel on the medication.

Conversation is Main Activity
That’s why folks keep coming back and build the strong bonds.  Even if the community is created around providing information, one needs to make an effort to allow for conversation to happen.  A nice example is Wikipedia not only having an area for the article and other for it’s history, but a third tab for discussions about the material.

Accessibility and Accommodation
You need to be sure your members and visitors have what they need.  It may mean taking the occasional survey, or being sure people know where to send suggestions.  Showing how you follow up on these is important as well. In a health community you might be testing the site with screen readers and other accessibility equipment more often.

The Regulars
There needs to be a stable group of folks that one would expect to find when they visit the place.  In an asynchronous community, they wouldn’t need to participate constantly, but well within the tempo of the community. They may even help set the tempo.

Inviting people to a community, or giving an online presence to a community that has started elsewhere may be a great way to have regulars.  Being able to identify individuals is important, whether by username or avatar.

Activities assist long term participation in a community using gamification mechanis, may also help.

If anything, Oldenburg shows the importance of having regulars, and thus the necessary effort that should be expended to encourage them.  Just having a continual churn of new members is not enough.

A Low Profile
The simplicity of the third place is notable; it is not fancy but modestly furnished.

Keeping the community features to a minimum, at least for new visitors, is important. Not only does it make participation simple, but as Oldenburg notes, the visuals do not overwhelm the member’s.

The Mood is Playful
With its members coming from many different perspectives, an informal schedule, stimulating conversation, and being apart for the ordinary world, Oldenburg brings up these ways to encourage a playful mood.

A Home Away From Home
Here, Oldenburg uses notions from David Seamon to describe a homelike atmosphere.  It is one of congeniality, that is visited with regularity, a place that the members have made for themselves, where one’s spirit is restored, a place to be one’s self and to leave one’s mark, and a feeling of warmth.

For A CM, I see this meaning one needs to create and maintain a safe place for individual expression. Moderators need to set a warm and inviting tone, one that is positive, that empowers. Notification, activities, and other aspects of the community can be used to encourage participation over time. And members need to be able to configure their community as they see fit.

The Great Good Place certainly created a lot of interest in how to go about creating such places. A CM would do well to read the first 40 pages or so.  I would not defend all that Oldenburg sets out. I do not I think the kind of third place Oldenburg is describing would be a good fit for all types of online communities.  However, his categories and descriptions go along way in assisting a CM develop a community.

1. The book first came out in 1989 and does not discuss the Internet.
Oldenburg, R. (1999). The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through The Day. New York: Marlowe & Company.

2. There are a lot of folks that cite his research  Here are few links/articles:

Wikipedia has a great summary:

Steinkuehler, C., and Williams, D. (2006). Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as “third places.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 1.

Online Worlds as “Third Places.” (Sept 2006) Cyber Talk

This looks like a good one, and I am trying to see if I can get a copy:
“Computer-mediated communication as a virtual third place: building
Oldenburg’s great good places on the world wide web”
Charles Soukup
New Media & Society June 2006 vol. 8 no. 3 421-440

About John

Interested in how information intersects daily life, technology, and art. Collaboration specialist, working in social and collaborative media. Biomedical Informaticist, focusing on patient/patient, patient/provider communication.
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