The Battle for the Third Space

January 16, 2008
Shantanu Dutta

Recently I was introduced to the concept of the “Third Space” and the war to gain control of this space. Apparently, if the “hard” competition in business and economics is about capturing emerging markets, the “soft” competition is all about capturing the third space and frighteningly, whoever captures and controls this “third space” will eventually shape the social landscape of the world and the next generation.

What is this “Third Space”? There may be many who know about it, and there may be many like me who have just discovered it. Conceptually it is very simple. Behavioral scientists have divided the social plane in which human beings live and interact into three zones – Home – the first zone, the work place – the second zone and everything else – the third zone.

While of course, all three zones are evolving, the home and the work place are more or less well defined, the third space is just that – a third place outside of work and home where people spend their time and chill out and it could be the nearest Starbucks outlet. In fact Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has gone on record with the New York Times saying that "he wants Starbucks to become a third place in people’s lives - a sort of link between home and work where you can read the paper, download some tunes, buy a book or two, and either prepare for the day or wind down from it.”  

With the boundaries of home and the work place shrinking, more and more people are spending time in the “third space”, often doing things that in one day and age would usually be done at home or office. And with the third space yet undefined, and yet people choosing to spend more and more of their time their, Starbucks is just of many warships in the ocean seeking to dominate the waters. And though India doesn’t have a Starbucks just yet, the Baristas and the Coffee Days fill the role just as well. And yet, with more people spending more time in as yet uncharted “third spaces”, there is a need to shape its culture for the opinion formed there might shape the ethos of a generation.

The American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who popularized the term “Third Spaces”, calls them the anchor of community life and suggests that pubs, cafes, coffeehouses, post offices are typical examples of third spaces. In fact he describes them as hubs of grassroots democracy as conversation, dialogue, and discussion happens and the rudiments of policy begin to be hammered out there. For those who remember the famed India Coffee House of antiquity, there is a more than a shadow of truth in what Oldenburg says. In Kolkata’s College Street Coffee House, dignitaries of the stature of Netaji and Rabindranath Tagore sipped coffee and in later years Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen were visitors. A not entirely apocryphal story indicates that the Leftist movement in India was shaped on its tables as penurious idealists with stars in their eyes sat swirling smoke and sipping coffee.  

But Oldenburg is a worried man. According to him, informal neighborhood gathering places were, for many years, an integral part of cities and towns but since World War II, they've been vanishing and thus denying people places where community could be formed. And though he writes in an American context, India is not insulated. The legendary India Coffee House on Kolkata’s College Street as well most of the others that survive have a seedy, dilapidated look and face a financial crisis. Many have closed down. They are no match for the Coffee Days or the Baristas. Except of course in one thing- Coffee Houses provide community, their modern cousins offer primarily an experience and an ambience.

However the bigger battle for the ownership of the “third space” is not happening offline but online as Social Networking sites compete for eyeballs with the dream and promise of virtual community where you can meet a hundred people in a day and not know one in a year. And yet with computers and net connectivity becoming slowly ubiquitous, that is where we are headed. Clearly notions of community and communication are changing and therefore forms and contexts are changing. But the battle for the claiming of “the third space” is a very real one and it is crucial that no matter who is the eventual winner is, they do not operate in a moral and ethically neutral atmosphere or worse promote fanaticism, intolerance, terrorism or other reprehensible traits. The challenge is not so much to cheerlead for one or the other but more so to prevent what is evil from gaining ground.

Shantanu Dutta is a medical doctor by training and a development professional by vocation. His writings mostly deal with change, complexity and conversion and tries to look at a changing world through heaven's eyes.
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