Shopping malls were the original, though unofficial, Third Places. That's where women and teenagers hung out when not at home or work/school. We met each other at the mall. Or we ran into each other at the mall. And we were so glad to see each other. We talked each other into sampling an exotic cuisine two levels down. New dining concepts were always moving in.
Sure, those smug critics of pop culture derided us. But, we did feel better after a few hours at the mall.
Now, mall culture is collapsing. That's not where you go any more. As Business Insider reports, about 15% of that space will probably be used for non-retail in the next 10 years. Here is that coverage. I see that as a low estimate.
My hunch is that the old mall will be converted into areas for special events. It's suited for demonstrations, conferences and seminars. During breaks there is plenty of room to walk around and wonderful places to eat. If digital news sites are to make real money they have to host those kinds of meet-ups.
Where are we hanging out? Centers for spirituality are packed. Those range from 12-step meetings to Buddhist temples. Pope Francis has been a pull force bringing back fallen-away Roman Catholics. The Society of Friends offers endless activities for those of all ages. Attendance at Sunday School for children is brisk. And evangelical churches are rocking, literally. The building where one is in New Haven, Connecticut shakes during Sunday service.
But we probably will consider our smartphones our virtual Third Place. Last night I was at a town meeting. The content was not as boring as it could have been. But one-fourth through about half of us had taken a peek at what was going on in cyberspace. By half time I have a hunch some attending had ordered some merchandise online.
The peril here is that we do get out, as we did with the brick-and-mortar Third Places, but we aren't fully social. The smartphone is the barrier. We could lose our ability to relate to other human beings in the way we used to. There won't be that same kind of restoration of the spirit when we come together, especially over strange food.