The social scientist Ray Oldenburg talks about how humans need a third place, besides work and home, to meet with friends, have a beer, discuss the events of the day, and enjoy some human interaction. Coffee shops, bars, hair salons, beer gardens, pool halls, clubs, and other hangouts are as vital as factories, schools and apartments [“The Great Good Place”, 1989]. But capitalist society has been eroding those third places, and society is left impoverished. In “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam brings forth, in riveting and well-documented detail, reams of evidence that American society has all but lost its third places. Over the last 25 years, Americans “belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often.”  For too many people, life consists of going to work, then going home and watching TV. Work-TV-Sleep-Work-TV-Sleep. It seems to me that the phenomenon is far more acute among software developers, especially in places like Silicon Valley and the suburbs of Seattle. People graduate from college, move across country to a new place where they don’t know anyone, and end up working 12 hour days basically out of loneliness.
So it’s no surprise that so many programmers, desperate for a little human contact, flock to online communities – chat rooms, discussion forums, open source projects, and Ultima Online. In creating community software, we are, to some extent, trying to create a third place. And like any other architecture project, the design decisions we make are crucial. Make a bar too loud, and people won’t be able to have conversations. That makes for a very different kind of place than a coffee shop. Make a coffee shop without very many chairs, as Starbucks does, and people will carry their coffee back to their lonely rooms, instead of staying around and socializing like they do in the fantasy TV coffeehouse of “Friends,” a program we watch because an ersatz third place is less painful than none at all.
In software, as in architecture, design decisions are just as important to the type of community that develops or fails to develop. When you make something easy, people do it more often. When you make something hard, people do it less often. In this way you can gently encourage people to behave in certain ways which determine the character and quality of the community. Will it feel friendly? Is there thick conversation, a European salon full of intellectuals with interesting ideas? Or is the place deserted, with a few dirty advertising leaflets lying around on the floor that nobody has bothered to pick up?
— Excerpted from my latest article, “Building Communities with Software,” which will only be sent to email subscribers. Please subscribe now to receive the article, which will be sent out on Monday morning.