The Evolution of Digital Third Spaces

From AOL Instant Messenger and MySpace to Minecraft and Fortnite—ever-changing, but never totally unique.

The last five years or so I have heard more and more talk about “third spaces.” I don’t mean that to say that this concept is new, but I do think the term may be more commonly used in the recent past than it was when I was a teenager—I don’t remember anyone using it in the 2000s.

A “third space,” if you’ve never heard of the term, is a place in which a group of people may gather to socialize that isn’t the home or workplace of one of the gatherers. Historically some common third places may include the bar, the park, or a local coffee shop. Part of the reason the term “third space” is becoming more of a household term, I think, is because the social internet has created a whole wide world of third places. There are third places for cat lovers, third places for teenagers who love anime, third places for amateur stand-up comedians, and thousands of others. When it comes down to it, the entirety of the social internet is a giant third place with millions of rooms in which a group of people may socialize around a shared interest, worldview, or lifestyle.

The Late 1990s and Early 2000s: The Beginnings

The beginning of the internet being a “third space” comes before this time period with the earliest forms of message boards and listservs, but this is when my beginning sits when it comes to the internet as a “space” for socialization. I started messaging with friends online as early as second grade or so (around 1997), which means I don’t even really remember a world in which you had to call friends on the phone and ask their parents to speak to them in order to talk after school. Sure, we still called friends on landline phones at numbers we had memorized, miraculously, and asked if they wanted to come over and play Nintendo 64, go to the park to play baseball, or sleep over on the weekend. But pretty early on, my friends and I would hop on AOL Instant Messenger and MySpace (by middle school, around 2003) as soon as we got home from hanging out in the hallways.

It was amazing to be able to connect with friends outside of the school building and feel like we were hanging out while watching videos on ebaumsworld or playing our favorite flash games on addictinggames.com. It was revolutionary, really. But it was only the beginning. It felt so advanced at the time, but it was nothing compared to what was to come as I aged into my adolescent years.

The Late 2000s and Early 2010s: A Time of Rapid Change

This is a bit of a “dark ages” when it comes to my experience with a digital third space. It’s not that I wasn’t participating—I was—but I was also in college and interacting with people offline in a variety of social settings I hadn’t in middle and high school. Between my middle school years of roughly 2002-2005 and my high school graduation in the spring of 2009 a lot changed in the world of the social internet and the ways teenagers were meeting in digital spaces.

First, Facebook opened up to the general public in 2006 after being closed to anyone outside of the collegiate space for its first couple years of existence. There was a period in high school when my friends and I were maintaining both MySpace and Facebook pages. I remember many conversations with friends about whether Facebook would work or if MySpace would continue to reign supreme. It wasn’t very long before most of us had abandoned our gaudy MySpace pages with their broody punk rock background music for the more polished, grown-up vibe of Facebook.

Second, the cell phone and smartphone both became exponentially more popular between my sixth grade year and graduation. When I began middle school, the idea that I would have a cell phone in high school would have been a bit outlandish. I had no such hopes as I recall. I remember thinking my dad’s Blackberry was cool when I was in middle school, but virtually none of my friends had phones, so I didn’t feel the need to have one. Likewise, the phones they did have couldn’t even access our most common forms of communication—AIM and MySpace—anyway. So what good would a phone have been to me in 2003? By the time I was in high school, though, most of my friends did have phones and I finally got my own. Around the time I got a flip phone that year, some students did have Blackberry devices which were the dominant smartphone at the time, but most students didn’t actually have a need for the added features of a smartphone at the time (except for my friend Chadi who owned a gas station with his dad). The first iPhone released my junior year, in 2007, and that’s when smartphones really began to explode among even teenagers, along with apps that allowed us to access our favorite third places online, namely, Facebook.

Third, and finally, on top of the transformations in social media and smartphones that took place between my sixth grade year and high school graduation, another phenomenon changed the game: the improvement and explosion in popularity of video game consoles. In elementary school, we would come home from school and play Goldeneye or Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64 or Pokémon on our GameBoy Colors. Online gaming existed in some forms on the home computer at that time, but very few kids or teenagers were playing online video games in the late 90s.

With the early 00s came a bunch of popular online PC games like World of Warcraft, Battlefield, and others, but again, kids weren’t playing these games nearly as much as older teens and young adults were. The PlayStation 2 and original Xbox took home console gaming to a whole new level and inducted a generation of kids who grew up having neighborhood Mario Kart 64 tournaments into a brand new world of online multiplayer video games. With games like Halo, SOCOM II (one of my favorite games of the era), or the earliest iterations of Call of Duty (one of the most successful video game franchises in history), the online multiplayer video game lobby became a new genre of third space that set the precedent for where we find ourselves today.

The Late 2010s to the Present: Video Games Dominate

My experience in the early online multiplayer console video game space is the main reason I totally understand the kids of all ages who drop their book bags when they get home from school and head straight for Fortnite or Minecraft on their preferred video game platform—when it comes down to it they’re doing the same thing we were doing in the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead of hanging out on AOL Instant Messenger and playing Line Rider in an Internet Explorer window, they’re hanging out on Xbox Live or Discord and playing Fortnite or Among Us or Minecraft. It really isn’t very different. But it is a lot more common.

When I was in middle and high school, playing online video games was heavily associated with nerd culture—cool people didn’t really play video games online. Some of the more mainstream games like Halo or Call of Duty drew a wider audience, but video games were sort of an outpost for the outcast or at least not where cool people hung out after school.

Today, teens of all high school castes and cultural backgrounds are hanging out in Fortnite, Among Us, Minecraft, or other video game third places—these video-game-centric third spaces dominate the “third space” space. Of course they are also still hanging out in the latest iteration of social media third places like TikTok, Instagram, and the like, but they are also playing casual video games as a setting to socialize. Many teenagers, for example, log on to play Fortnite on their Xboxes or Playstations after school not because they want to become the best Fortnite players in the world, but just to form a party with their friends and do something while they talk about what happened at school.

Nothing New Under the Sun

As I lead the student ministry at my church and hear about students hanging out playing Among Us or whatever video game is most popular in the moment, it is always fascinating to me to talk with them about their experiences and learn how very similar they are to my own, despite me being 15 years older than most of them. Students in our ministry who are of the social strata that would have never admitted to playing video games when I was in high school are some of the most active and interested to talk about their latest Fortnite experience or how their friend won as an imposter in Among Us the other night.

How will third spaces continue to change over time? I’m not sure, but I have a feeling it will be a new form of an old phenomenon.