For the past year, many of us have been stuck in one place – home. And while there, we’ve tried to recreate many of the activities and interactions that used to sustain us. Tom Johnson deconstructs what it all means. 

Without leaving the sofa, we see friends for coffees or cocktails. We can’t go to the gym, but we can join an online exercise class. We can’t go to the museum, but we can access a virtual tour of the gallery.

This is the Fourth Place: a digital space that recreates real world leisure and, in doing so, changes it.

Fourth Places fall into several different categories. They often revolve around games – whether board games over Zoom or chatting while playing FIFA, Fortnite or Among Us. Other examples include sharing exercise – such as with friends on Peloton or in a virtual reality environment like Zwift. They can be cultural too; visitor attractions are offering tours of their venues while galleries are closed ad events – like last year’s proms – are moving online. Even the most laid-back activities – gathering to watch the game in a pub, watching TV with friends or a taking a trip to the cinema – can all be recreated using media sharing apps like BT Watch Together, Scener or Netflix Watch Party.

These activities once took place in the real world, what those in leisure and hospitality might know as the Third Place: common spaces, from cafes to pubs to parks to community centres, that become the default setting of informal public life. In the last year, banned from those places, we’ve recreated them online.

But in doing so, we’ve changed them. A drink online with friends isn’t the same as a drink in the pub; not in terms of what we drink, how we talk or whether the night will be predictable or spontaneous. Joining an exercise class from home is not the same as going in person; this is reflected in cost, experience and even some of the social norms that go with it. These are such distinct activities they should be thought of differently. These are new types of leisure, not recreations of old ones.

There are a few characteristics common to all Fourth Place activities. They are fundamentally about leisure and interaction. They also provide a sense of co-presence and company when we’re alone. In this sense, Fourth Places perform the same role that traditional Third Places like pubs or cafes do – a place to meet, to see, to talk and to listen.

But there is also a conflict between Third and Fourth Places. As physical environments, Third Places are rooted in their community. They are local amenities that provide their neighbourhood with economic, social and cultural benefits. Fourth Places owe nothing to proximity; this is arguably their greatest asset. It doesn’t matter if your friends are two miles away or two hundred – in Fourth Places you can still meet. But a wholesale shift to Fourth Place leisure and interaction spells trouble: what could it do to communities if all our meeting places disappeared?

Our data shows that some Third Places have little to fear from their digital counterparts. The experience of festivals, live events and cultural exhibits online pales in comparison to the real thing. There is also a big gulf between digital exercise (e.g. Peloton) and real-world workouts in terms of enjoyment. But in other examples – such as joining a pub quiz online, or using an app like Netflix Watch Party rather than going to the cinema – consumers tend to think the Fourth Place facsimile is just as good, if not better, than the real thing.

Those real spaces aren’t going away anytime soon: too many of the unquantifiable things they provide – spontaneity, community, serendipity – cannot be easily replicated by closed networks of families and friends on Zoom. But they will be squeezed; particularly after the great reopening this summer when economic pressures begin to bite and we start to need more reasons to venture out.

As we spend more time at home we’ll need different things. More nights in the Fourth Place mean more in home occasions elevated to special status; it’s not just another night in front of the TV but a night at home with friends – so we’ll need food and drink that can be more performative. Our homes themselves may also need to be reconfigured; if we are ‘hosting’ more often we’ll need flexible spaces that can be leisure venues, yoga studios and home-offices all at once.

The entrenchment of the Fourth Place as a permanent feature of our lives also raises huge questions for marketers. Are marketers welcome in this space? How can they reach their audiences – particularly in closed spaces such as video calls with family and friends?

The sheer length of the pandemic ensures that these activities will live beyond Covid. These are no longer questions for the stop-gap of lockdown but for the future of leisure itself. Leisure, interaction and socialising are not just real world activities anymore – they exist in the digital Fourth Space too.