Virtual places (like more traditional architectural settings) must be
understood in context — as parts of larger systems of places — and their
role and importance is easy to misunderstand if we forget this.

In any successful urban environment we find a huge variety of different
sorts of meeting places serving different purposes and working in different
ways. Meeting someone at a bus stop is different from meeting them in a bar
or in the members’ lounge of some fancy club, and it structures a different
sort of interaction. There are public meeting places and private ones.
There’s your place and there’s my place. There are different levels of
risk, trust, and commitment involved. The differences matter and the
variety is crucial. Our lives would be greatly impoverished if we didn’t
have this diversity of places. Cyberspace meeting places simply add some
interesting new possibilities to the urban repertoire.

Another characteristic of successful urban environments is that they
provide ranges of settings appropriate to different stages in human
relationships, and so support progression in those relationships. A
standard boy-meets-girl story, for example, involves meeting in a work
setting, getting to know each other better by going to places like
restaurants and movie theaters, and eventually going home together.
Cyberspace settings can clearly play a role in such progressions. The
risk-free, arm’s-length, largely free-from-age-and-gender-markings,
settings currently common in cyberspace provide a new and useful kind of
starting point. When connections are established there, as Stacy Horn
observes, they can and often do progress to another level in physical
space. Or they can be abandoned fairly quickly and painlessly.

A community that ONLY provided online chat rooms as meeting places would
be as one-dimensional and boring as one that provided only fast food
restaurants, or only laundromats, or pool halls, or something. (It would,
as Mark Slouka worries, implicitly deny the wholeness of human existence.
And it would certainly deny the complexity and diversity of human
existence.) But a community that ADDS these new sorts of places is probably
richer and better for it. The popularity of some of the more cleverly
constructed virtual places suggests that they respond to some dimensions of
human existence that the more traditional urban repertoire doesn’t.

Return to the Dialog