No Sense of Place

The Play Is the Thing

No Sense of Place, Joshua Meyrowitz’s breakthrough book, explores how electronic media displace our notions of what it means to be present, thus causing dislocations in our social behavior. The essential message of the book is that electronic media are dissolving the historic connection between physical place and social place.

Meyrowitz brings together sociologist Erving Goffman’s concepts of how social settings influence roles with the mind-popping work of Marshall McLuhan who describes media as extensions of the senses. Communications technology sets the stage for a whole new roster of roles as place expands into the ether.

Goffman says each role has two sides. Using the metaphor of a play, he describes the role as presenting its public face to the audience and its private face “backstage” where the actors and director develop, rehearse, and discuss performances. Historically, belonging to a group means being able to go backstage. New people socialize into the group through their gradual introduction to the backstage. There they gain “inside” information. Promotion in a hierarchy means moving to ever more exclusive and private places.

Since time and place historically have been coincident, Goffman simply assumes the obvious, that groups communicate primarily face-to-face. Until now the more subtle relationship between physical space and social effect has been obscured.

“It is not the physical setting itself that determines the nature of the interaction, but the patterns of information flow,” Meyrowitz writes. If the social setting is an information system, then new media dramatically change the roles people play in how “groupness” is achieved. He places roles in three categories essential to virtual teams:

  • Identity;
  • Socialization; and
  • Rank.


For the team to have its own unique sense of identity, its physical location matters less than its “shared but secret information.”4 Members have access to this privileged information where and when the group gathers, providing them with a core sense of belonging. Such information separates members (“us”) from others (“them”) who do not have the same access. Backstage, the team discusses options, resolves conflicts, and makes decisions.

Suddenly, in the electronic era, people no longer must gather in physical places to “belong.” Virtual teams tend to have very porous boundaries and may have little or no backstage. As private group places become public ones, group identity, an elusive quality hard enough to establish in the virtual world, blurs.


New people become members of a group through “controlled access to group information,” the formal and informal processes of socialization. Orientation and training are formal processes of socialization, while hints, tips, and suggestions convey crucial “how it's done” knowledge informally. People grow into groups over time. When access to a physical place governs availability of information, the whole group can watch as new members transition into full participants through their rites of passage.

Since it is physically impossible to be in two places at once in the face-to-face world, access to new places also used to mean that you had to leave old places behind. The electronic era suspends the Newtonian laws of motion. Here people do not have to desert old places in order to access new ones. You can simultaneously be in numerous online places, joining new groups while weaning yourself from old ones.

You even can “parallel process” interactions: Attend your team’s meetings by video conference, push mute and take a phone call, check your e-mail, and talk to someone who walks into the room. Where exactly are you during the meeting—or are you dipping in and out of multiple meetings simultaneously? Far fetched? How often have you checked your e-mail while on a conference call?

Meta Greenberg, an organization development professional, reports on just how far people have taken the idea of multiple presence. “I have two clients at a telecommunications company who made a tape of ‘ums and ‘ahs,’ rustling papers in the background. Then after a few hours on a long boring con call, they started the tape, left the room, and no one realized what happened. Boring meetings will not be cured just because they’re not face-to-face. If anything, sabotage gets even more intriguing.”

As physical places give way to virtual ones, new members can instantly gain access to all of the group’s information. Not surprisingly, traditional patterns of socialization are collapsing as transition stages become more difficult to discern.


According to tradition, authority depends heavily on access to exclusive places that house special knowledge. Elite clubs are obvious locales that demonstrate the power that comes with place. University libraries are another; if you belong to that particular academic “club,” you have access to its special knowledge that can literally make you an authority on a subject.

Indeed, the higher the group is in the hierarchy, the more these socially remote places convey a sense of “mystery and mystification.”5 Inaccessibility is a measure of status (or lack thereof). Members jealously guard backstage areas and carefully script performances.

Since the Nomadic era, new media have increased the ability of leaders to segregate and isolate information systems. The consequence is that they extend their control. Here again, the electronic era is challenging these bastions of privilege. While it still may cost many thousands of dollars to join the country club, you need only pay your monthly Internet provider fee to enter into conversation with countless numbers of experts everywhere in the world.

Likewise, anyone with a connection to the net and a web browser now can visit thousands of university library home pages without ever registering for a single university course. Yet if that same person shows up at one of these libraries without an official identification card, access would likely be denied.

Another irony of the electronic era is that an anti-status symbol of the past is now an important tool to sustain authority in the future. Typing, once considered the province of the hired help, is a key skill in the electronic world. The effect of broader access to once-exclusive information has been felt nowhere more profoundly than in the upper ranks of hierarchy