Toward a Virtual Commons

Rapt Studio
13 min readJul 10, 2020


A study on the potential of urban and cultural theory to revitalize social experience online, kindling a spirit of creative misuse.

“The Naked City” by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, 1957

Note: This piece was written prior to the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing uprising and protests, which have reclaimed vast swathes of public space both in the imaginary and in reality. This new context had clear implications for several points of analysis in the original piece, and we have layered insight in where suitable, while avoiding a frivolous or appropriative treatment of the ongoing national discourse.

“His living room is a box in the theater of the world.” ~Walter Benjamin

On a typical morning — a pre-pandemic one, if we can still conjure its texture — we might brew a pot of coffee, check our feeds, or exercise (ambitious, yes). We might queue a podcast, or pick up a sandwich, or take a call, or commute. This transit, a gradual broadening of our attention and energies from the intimacy of private life to the openness of our public one, seems quite simple and is indeed easily taken for granted.

An absence of the commons from our lives now is conspicuous. A broad ecosystem of space — the public, social sphere that knits communities together — has been compressed into one awkward, oversubscribed surrogate: a kitchen table and laptop. While protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others — civic action on a scale heretofore unseen in this country — have reclaimed various forms of public space, our experience of collective social relation has still, by and large, been flattened by the health crisis and its quarantine. This quandary is likely here to stay: as some states amble toward reopening businesses, others still are seeing a resurgence of viral cases. It’s becoming clear: dominant modes of common space — the workplace and the retail shop — may be changed for good.

A sociologist or urbanist might divide the ecosystem of space, as we know it, into thirds: the first space being the home, the second space work, and the third a kind of in-between, a connector, everything that is elusive and outdoors right now. When Ray Oldenburg first coined the term ‘Third Space’ in 1989, he was extending a long tradition of thinking on the city as varied, cluttered, hypnotic, and surprising — a spatial and social territory that makes up our sense of the commons. It is sidewalk and public plaza; museum and library; market and café; alley and lobby. It gives us space to breathe, to slip out of ourselves and connect with something larger, while exploring and colliding and scratching itches that beckon at odd hours.

Third space is principally a vector. It’s less a destination than an in-between: always there, it knits together the stuff of daily life. Urban third space, specifically, is a patchwork of juxtapositions that satisfies or frustrates our interest in stimulating and unexpected ways. It promises spectacle and experience, place and belonging. Third space combines density, eclecticism, and movement, and produces a single result: indeterminacy. This indeterminacy, a collective vitality, is a key value cities create.

Virtual life — and in particular, the social venues that drive our second, online selves — functions differently. By serving data-curated content, product, and experience, it is increasingly tailored to our existing interests and predispositions, reinforcing rather than broadening them. Social media is itself something of a misnomer: it doesn’t deliver the modes of sociality and experience we crave most. It may be better thought of as ‘feedback’ media.

Confined to quarantine, can we replicate the value, or delirium, of third space indoors? Can we look to the city and urban theory for models of digital experience that might stitch together our virtual archipelago?

It’s a tall order, but we can use the virtual infrastructure we have on hand to surprise, frustrate, or expand our interest the way urban space might. We’ll just have to get quirky with it.

The Drudgery of Being Useful

We can also look to the past for precedent. In the 1930s, a group of thinkers emerged — the Frankfurt School — who sought novel connections between aesthetics, politics, and cultural experience, as well as models for engaging them. Theorist and critic Walter Benjamin was foremost among the group, and was particularly interested in charting how new media and modes of production impact cultural space and the psycho-social experiences they create — a task not unlike our own today.

“Paris Street; Rainy Day” by Gustave Caillebotte, Art Institute of Chicago

For Benjamin, third space presents a constellation of disparate points for its subject, the Flâneur, to connect or make sense of. Benjamin borrowed this character — a curious-but-idle wanderer, an explorer and observer of urban life — from Baudelaire’s observations of the urban haute bourgeoisie. The Flâneur stalked the streets of 19th-century Paris and became a crucial figure for Benjamin and other 20th-century scholars. He was a new type of subject defined by a new experience — a new mode of aesthetic engagement — with the commons. The archetypal Flâneur is a passive figure, an element of public life that seeks new experience for its own sake, out of boredom, curiosity, or privilege. He skirts along the surface of the commons’ connective tissue, and becomes a fixture of it himself. This might sound familiar to those of us itching to people-watch in a coffee shop or take a walk beyond our neighborhood.

What’s relevant for us now about Benjamin’s Flâneur is the idleness and openness of the character, the way he approaches the immersive chaos of the modern commercial city. The Flâneur has no purpose — he doesn’t walk a plotted route and his goal is indeterminate, or at most it’s to ‘see and be seen.’ It’s in this state that the rich collage of juxtapositions of urban third space yield the most value — when we permit curiosities to accrete, to open new doors, to make surprising connections. If it’s the new and surprising connections we’re missing in quarantine, we might try to conjure the spirit of the Flâneur to revitalize our relationship with the digital commons.

For more help, we might look to the Situationist International. A collective of artists and theorists in the same lineage, the Situationists were more politically active than the Frankfurt School, experimenting with and disrupting public life and its attendant patterns of behavior. They coined the concept of a dérive — literally an impromptu ‘drift’ through the city, often inebriated, that yielded previously unimagined connections. They even mapped the experience itself. This scrambling of typical modes of urban experience was deliberate, and something that, confined to a virtual experience of the world, we can learn from.

In quarantine, we’re facing a crisis of determinacy. Everything is overdetermined. Each corner of our calendar is blocked out — Zooms with family, coworkers, or clients — while our experience of physical third space is limited to excursions for essentials.

Even when public life does pick up steam, this isn’t likely to change: in Spain, which has opened small businesses, patrons can shop by appointment only. There is little room for coincidence, spontaneity, and the unexpected. So we must do as the avant-garde did: get deliberate about scrambling the virtual commons.

The Situationists would have more to say in this regard. Détournement — literally rerouting, or hijacking — was a mode of creative misuse of objects, artworks, or cultural artifacts the collective used to create something new. How can we creatively misuse the virtual infrastructure at our disposal, bending it to yield new experience? How can we, to channel Benjamin, free it “from the drudgery of being useful”?

The Disappearance of the Commons

The health crisis has accelerated economic and cultural shifts that have been approaching for decades. Virtuality, on the one hand, has been creeping into the fabric of commerce and production as freelancing and business travel increase. Home and work life — the first two spaces in our tripod — have been elided for some time, particularly since the advent of widely available (and invasive) communications technologies. Our third space, too, has been slowly reconstituted with incursions of private interest into the public domain.

That is, physical public space itself has suffered from a kind of ‘flattening.’ Privately operated public spaces (POPs) have supplemented and then sublated public plazas, parks, and other gathering spaces for decades. While offering municipalities the opportunity to creatively use or repurpose space — integrating retail or food and beverage into parks themselves, for instance — they also shift operation, curation of access, and the definition of public benefit to private governance.

A sense of community — where we can feel surprised and challenged, but also like a regular — is thus increasingly placed behind a paywall. Starbucks founder Howard Schultz understood the need for third space in American life, particularly in our autocentric, commons-starved suburbs, and as he sought to replicate an experience of the European cafe, he understood that Starbucks offered community as much as it did coffee. The company’s function as a third space has only become more essential with the passage of time; it recently instituted a policy that allowed people to use tables or restrooms without purchasing a beverage.

The advent of experiential retail, brand centers, and sponsored activations underscore this point; all of them attempt to integrate ‘community’ or ‘social’ spaces with a perfunctory provision of goods and urban atmospherics. Even before the health crisis, we were starved for creative ways of coming together, but quarantine has given us a caricature of this trend taken to a logical extreme: what does it look like without public space?

We need something of a paradigm shift: private involvement in public life should be leveraged as an opportunity for revitalization. Companies and brands, put simply, must own their role as agents and innovators of third space, and contribute to the health of our dwindling physical commons.

Retooling Digital Experience

But what of our virtual commons? How can we draw from the creative and subversive imagination of our predecessors and leverage the considerable force of the private sector to capture the spirit of third space, digitally? There are three categories of experience that overlap physical and virtual third space, which we might find useful.

1. Presence and Atmosphere

In public, we’re visible — actual people in the meatspace, to borrow from online vernacular — but we have the capacity to be anonymous at the same time. This can have any number of effects: it can heighten our senses of introspection and presence, increase our receptivity to new connections, and more.

How can we be seen as a digital avatar, without being known, but enabled also to see the many others nearby us? There are currently some indicators of virtual presence — read receipts, ‘active now’ tags, going ‘live’ on social — but the stakes aren’t as high, the interactions more one-directional, the receipts easily ignorable. Most social media is asynchronous and reduces the gaze, so formative to our subjective experience, to a one-way broadcast of an arrested and isolated moment. Can we enliven this? Partners in long distance relationships are already sleeping on Zoom, for the added sense of presence and intimacy.

Should we set up a Zoom in our kitchens, leaving it on all day for coworkers and friends to pop in? Should neighborhoods host running meetings where strangers can pop in and out at leisure — even with the risks of attendant ‘Zoom bombs’?

Alone Together: Microsoft Teams

Physical third space acts as an enveloping fabric, a backdrop that we don’t give total attention to but still glean a general impression of, coloring our experience of a space. Is there a way to infuse a sense of atmosphere, giving a whole swathe of our digital life the look, feel, or sound of a specific neighborhood? Should we set up found-sound mics in Washington Square, the great stair in front of the Met, the reading room at the Bibliotheque Nationale, the boardwalk on Venice beach, or Yoyogi Park, that we can tune into for an afternoon? How can new augmented reality technologies be exploited?

2. Agency

Under quarantine, the physical commons is extremely limited. Our experience of it is determined by short trips out for essentials, or to catch a breath of fresh air through PPE.

Likewise, our experience of the virtual is limited, but by different elements. The utility of single-function social apps can be extremely limiting: the ultra-focused use value that draws in swathes of users also sets up confines that limit the breadth of a potential virtual experience. Form and function put up guard rails, so that we go back to each virtual destination for the same reasons, and with the same expectations. This is where agency — by which we mean a sense of independence, empowerment, the ability to determine one’s future — comes into play.

How can we misuse (détourn) familiar digital functions — exploding their utility to reroute their meaning, and yield more freedom and possibility? How can we redefine the boundaries of the avatar to accommodate more chaotic, human potential? Can Instagram be repurposed as a shared platform for gathering and discussing original sketches in the development of a design? Can Snapchat be used as an alternative to Slack memos? Can Twitch be retooled for a town hall? Digital platforms have already been misused, Zoom first and foremost: the presentation and conferencing tool is hosting game nights, family calls, record-release parties, and drag queen brunches, in which groups of fifty or so strangers get together on a grid-view for performance and drinks. Instagram and Twitter, meanwhile, have become essential tools for organizing and routing real-time protests: in urban centers across the U.S., it’s possible to see a call to direct action online and hear the protest approaching your block at the same time: a simultaneous flattening and integration of the digital and physical commons. This inventive détourn is particularly close to the spirit of the Situationists themselves, whose public interventions were highly political.

The answer lies, it would seem, in our attitude and imagination, rather than a material shift of the virtual commons at our disposal.

3. Spontaneity and Indeterminacy

Our virtual lives — chock-full of banner ads, push notifications, and resilient spam — are not wanting for interruption. What they are lacking is a sense of spontaneity and indeterminacy, and their result: collision. Digital space lacks the intrusion of the unexpected. It can’t catch us off-guard and capture our curiosity by putting us into a live and mutual interaction with another individual.

In public, this could happen with the layered movements of traffic; a sudden burst of music on a crowded train; stumbling into an acquaintance you haven’t seen in years, revealing a whole segment of the past that slipped from memory; browsing for a book or street food. There are analogues for this mode of experience virtually — the Wikipedia hole, the Reddit thread, Tinder, and for about 15 minutes in 2010, Chatroulette — but they tend less to be modes of common experience than personal interest or obsession, or a means to a very specific end.

How can we conjure collisions, juxtapositions of virtual media or material, that might approach the variegated texture of third space? How can virtual life touch us the way a city block can?

Our virtual lives can be as dense, diverse, and fluid as a city block, but somehow these qualities remain hidden and we remain alienated, as if we each had our own private internet, devoid of other humans. Attempting to understand why this is true returns us to the interaction fundamental to all third space: the exchange and overlap between public and private. Millions of private entities (people, businesses, etc.) come together and activate the public by testing the boundaries of public and private within themselves. As each participant explores what can be shared of themselves, they also receive something of this from others. Online in our digital skins, however, our privacy and property are sacrosanct: protecting our identity, data, and ourselves is increasingly complicated, and rigid boundaries aren’t just encouraged, they’re necessary. An individual performance of the question of publicness is essentially impossible.

Everything on the internet is a destination, a space closed off from others, having been created purposefully to fill a specific utility. For people used to relying on city streets as social incubators, this is deeply alienating. Streets infill the gaps between moments of stasis on our respective itineraries with motion, chaos, and complexity. While for the city this is physically and practically necessary, online it could be recreated as a commercially purposeless but nevertheless vital collective experience. For example, while waiting for an app to load on your phone, you might see a sudden interruption of radically complex and irrelevant content, generated by traces of other users. “This is not an advertisement” it might read, as it offers you the chance to click, if you dare, on another passerby to engage with them directly.

Is there an entity or group of entities powerful enough to create and maintain such a tool (or anti-tool as it should perhaps be called)? Yes, but only with a cultural reset on the sense of public duty which the private sector assumes when it reaches into the public for its own benefit. As the movement to have internet companies classified and regulated as public utilities gathers momentum, it would behoove them to consider their options for creating something truly open and shared.

There have been steps taken by tech companies to connect users more meaningfully during quarantine. Netflix has introduced new group-viewing functionality for movie nights; Houseparty has seen an uptick of new users and has added new functionality. Zoom itself has become something of an essential infrastructure, maintaining and expanding its server base to keep up with demand.

Perhaps the most successful by our metrics, Peloton has integrated leaderboard functionality and virtual competition into its cycling classes, bringing strangers together to beat community-set goals. Users can also self-identify and connect with hashtags, give virtual high-fives, and see in real time how friends performed on the same loop of the Tour de France. The only other virtual phenomenon of recent memory that brought users together in such dynamic, boundary-shifting ways is Pokemon Go, which takes players on an augmented, IRL tour of their neighborhoods to capture creatures, train them, and make them battle with strangers’ digital pets. Like a tamagotchi that’s decided to nest by the bus stop.

But these initiatives are just first steps, or improvisations, borne of the immediate needs of quarantine.

Investments, ideation, and creativity on vastly larger scales is necessary to address changes that are, by all indications, a lot less temporary than people may expect. Twelve to eighteen months — the most accelerated schedule for development of a vaccine being discussed — is quite a long time.

But this isn’t a dirge for public life. In the near future, the lockdowns will roll back, and the cities we know and love will slowly jolt to life. There’s no doubt they’ll be transfigured — as will we — but their fabric, the people and spaces and smells, the institutions and parks, will emerge, and we will commune with it, with a deeper understanding of how precious it is, and a heightened sense, perhaps, of how we can embrace it.

Special thanks to the contributors of this piece, including Liam Powell and Kumar Atre.

Rapt Studio is a strategic design consultancy. Our sweet spot is at the intersection of place, experience, and emotion.



Rapt Studio

Our sweet spot is at the intersection of place, experience, and emotion.