Sociologist Oldenburg responds to Facebook Places

In a recent interview, Facebook vice president of product Chris Cox, suggested that Ray Oldenburg’s work on the “third place” was behind the development of Facebook Places.

Oldenburg has responded in an email exchange with ZDNet:

“While I can appreciate that Facebook certainly helps people keep in touch with one another, I’m left to wonder why the pitch began with the 3P idea.  I got a whiff of snake oil there for the matter of how Facebook ties to 3Ps is not made clear.”

Speaking more broadly about the relationship between Facebook as a service and his ideas of place:

“I had nothing to do with Facebook and I resent the idea that it’s a “place.”  Real places unite people, electronic ones, because they are based on user choice, tend to be divisive; that is, to connect people who think alike and exclude others.  The term “virtual third place(s)” is common and most inappropriate.”Virtual” means the same in essence and effect and that is far from the truth.”

So Oldenburg is skeptical. The main issue seems to be whether this online realm is a real “place.” Public places are typically conceived as locations that all sorts of people can use. They don’t necessarily interact with each other but all can partake of it and are generally aware that there are different people around. In contrast, Facebook Places is limited to those with Facebook. Until we have a world where everyone has Facebook and has the ability to use it with a mobile device, Facebook Places is limited. There is a substantial sociological literature on the privatization of public spaces, such as parks.

Additionally, Oldenburg suggests that online communities tend to be broken down along lines of interest rather than proximity. People who like certain things tend to gather together and experience little mixing with others. These online places then become exclusive clubs. This is different than true public spaces where at least people are made aware that there are others in the world.

As ZDNet notes, Facebook is also interested in making money with these Places.

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