Since after the Second World War, there have been 3 generally recognised spaces. Ray Oldenburg’s, “The Great Good Place” characterised these in detail. The first is where you sleep, your home. The second is your workplace and the third, social spaces.

Nowhere on the world embraced this third place more than America. The mall embodies the third place. A space that is inexpensive or free to go to, accessible, welcoming and sociable.

In the past 2 decades the pace of growth in mall space has slowed and now reversed, as it has in general in the West. The same pattern has been seen at a faster rate in the UK, and at a slower pace across Europe.

I think by this point, you can guessof what the 4th place is. It is the virtual construct build up of vast telecommunication networks, servers and software stack that we call the internet.

The impact of the 4th place

When you look at workplaces and the home the impacts are both far more subtle than the third place.

Think of the stores that have demised, Blockbuster, Woolworths and many others. In the UK add BHS, Woolworths, HMV, the list goes on. Many would talk of disruption and a poor product mix as the driver behind this. Disruption often goes hand in hand with discussions that compare and contrast physical stores and internet stores. This only tells half the story and only takes a perspective view.

Expand this to a wider view and take Oldenburg’s characteristics of the 3rd place and compare them to the 4th. These spaces are in competition however can form part of a complimentary mix – Apple and Amazon invest in researching and creating physical stores as they add value to the overall brand and generate meaningful commercial interactions.

  • Free or inexpensive – access to the internet is seen as a basic and necessary utility to most and the legislative generally agrees with governments in the developed world setting out minimum connection standards for their citizens
  • Accessible – with devices so pervasive that allow connections and the advent of smart assistance that don’t even need a screen emerging people can access the 4th place everywhere and in a way that works for them.
  • Habitually accessed – When was the last time you went a day without checking Facebook, Twitter, instagram, your email, slack, messages or your favourite news site?
  • Welcoming – this could be debatable for some however, people typically put forward their ideal life on their social feeds. While the psychological impact of this is better understood people still feel they need to be updated and update others on what they eat, where they travel, even when they pray.

Other characteristics Oldenburg identifies are food & drink and where friends can be found.

The 4th place has many of the properties of the 3rd Place however on a sociological basis what does the 4th place add?

I would add there are 3 key additional elements of the 4th place

  • Sharing. Code, information, ideas can all be freely presented and feedback and insights gained. People really don’t hold back, and it invites interactions from introverts and extroverts alike.
  • Pervasive. It freely crosses the other 3 places and can equally enhance and detract from them.
  • Instant. As connectivity has improved so too has the expectation on this. Sites, music, videos and all forms of interactions are expected to be instant.

What it adds it also can remove. Look for instance at the natural monopolies that are emerging be that through Facebook and Twitter and their magnificent use of the network effect. Or Amazon’s ability to disrupt and corner markets from books to servers and maximize its economies of scale. Move Fast and Break things by Eric Ries goes into much detail of the damaging effects of these organsiations and believes they follow a Libertarianism set of principles. While I would not go so far, I do believe that they are using their influence and ability to shape markets to the determent of competition. They have also introduced a new 4th place type of trade that harks back to pre industrial ages — barter.

The more you share, the better the information the greater the social bounty in return. It is akin to the farmer, the larger the crop and the better the quality and yield, the more prosperous the farmer. In the same way as a famer waters and fertilises their crops, so too does the 4th place farmer. They seed with many posts, water with many links and fertilise with the engagement with others in the space. In exchange for vast sets of data about you, that you actively update, maintain and cultivate, you get services in return. From search results to your social or commercial networks and for a small number, they translate this into success outside of the 4th place.

In the 4th place it is those that master the exchange and the understanding of the exchange taking place, the higher the reward, there and in the world outside the 4th place. A conclusion of this faith being placed, is cryptocurrencies. Without the network effect, and the networks and computational infrastructure these could not emerge.

Cryptocurrencies, in part have evolved out of the willingness to barter over the internet. Whether ironic or not, the distributed computation projects of the 90’s created one of the foundations of how to hash blockchains and maintain the ledgers upon which they depend. There needed to be a way to split a very complex problem and not have all computers looking at the same part of the problem. This shared problem solving even existed on the PlayStation 3 as Folding@Home that allowed gamers to donate unused processing cycles to design new proteins for medical applications. While this was altruistic in its endeavor, the open source technology its based upon has since been leveraged to distribute both the ledger mechanisms for cryptocurrencies and also some less honorable efforts known as ‘Cryptojacking’ (You can see a javascript example that tells you all about it and tells you that its mining here as well as some great further reading).

If we are willing to exchange your personal information and data, your computer processing (and your electricity bills) for the utility offered by the internet, what else are you willing to give up?

Why the 4th place

With so much on offer through connected devices, the internet, the infrastructure and what is enables through cloud computing and the vast range of other activities going on, the internet doesn’t quite capture it. It’s in you pocket, its in your living room and bedroom. Its in your place of work and where you socialise. It’s moving fast, evolving and changing. Internet or World Wide Web fail now to capture the entropy of its uses. In many ways it has exceeded and gone beyond what defines the ‘internet’ and has led to terms like web 2.0, digital and IoT all forming part of this.