Deepa Singh, Kay Kender
Our experiences of otherness intertwined with our sociality are rife with alienation and exclusion, as we are forced to navigate spaces that are inherently not designed for us. In this existential experience of being in the world, marked by ever-present otherness, we seek spaces of belonging where we feel at home. We find safe spaces by secluding ourselves in hermitage with those who are closest to us, or by escaping to surround ourselves with trees, communing with other living things that give us solidarity and sociality.
→ Third spaces are liminal in the sense that they exist between a plethora of socially constructed binaries.
→ Third spaces are a necessary tool for ecofeminist designers that enable them to create spaces of shared solidarity imbued with ecological sensitivity.
But physically accessing these individual safe spaces is not always possible. When the normative rules and expectations of society corner us and make us feel threatened, we find ourselves seeking refuge in spaces carved out in the in-between of social norms—in subcultures, in bubbles, in small nooks, in third spaces that are neither here nor there. In this regard, digital third spaces are poignant in that they offer many of us access to sanctuary and a feeling of safety and belonging. Exploring our experiences in such spaces, we propose that by envisioning and designing for these digital in-betweens, we could approach design futures that move away from oppression, normativity, polarization, and alienation, and strive for care, interconnectedness, diversity, and solidarity.
Critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha's concept of third space  stems from his conception of hybridity in postcolonial thought, which necessitates treating culture as something that transcends binaries. For Bhabha, cultural difference does not translate into oppositional polarities leading to conflicts; rather, it underpins the presence of authority, which produces these cultural differences through discrimination . He introduces the third space as a liminal space between the "Self" and the "Other," a location that transcends the dichotomies of the colonized and the colonizer, the native and the alien, the immigrant and the citizen, and so on.
The nature of third spaces is such that they trouble binary identities and conceptualizations, instead embodying a fluid continuity of in-betweenness impossible to reduce to an either/or—a space-in-between, a liminal . As such, the concept of the third space has also been used in queer-feminist studies to examine identities and spaces carved out in resistance to heteronormativity and binary conceptualizations of gender .
A third space, in our interpretation, engenders real or virtual safe spaces that are created between social binaries. These are spaces for being-in-the-world unmasked, away from harmful prejudice, for finding and creating community, for empowerment and caring. And for sharing and healing experiences of alienation, isolation, being "odd," and never fitting in. Third spaces offer the affordance of being as one is, while interacting with others as they are.
We reimagine the third space as a fluid imaginary, an in-between of being neurodivergent and masking to navigate and connect with the world at large. Speaking from our own lived experiences of coming across these mostly digital third spaces, which often transcend the digital, we consider how ecofeminist thought could guide us in designing technospaces for belonging—not just with others but also with nature, other forms of life and ways of being, and a sense of wonder.
Kay Kender: Like so many other immigrants to wealthier countries, I grew up between two cultures, experiencing the in-between feeling of pride and shame, alienation and belonging, a sense of being on a perpetual journey. Like so many other nonbiliary folks, I grew up role-playing one gender after another, frantically oscillating between two alienating absolutes, before finally granting myself the grace of the in-between. And, like so many other neurodivergent people, I have spent my entire life being either the adult child or the child adult, desperately failing at being "normal."
The only place that truly felt like home was the forest I grew up in. But I found another sense of belonging that is hard to describe on Tumblr, a platform where, for the sole sake of communion, an entire fandom for a movie that never existed emerged (look up the fake film Goncharov), where role-playing wizards shitpost (https://evilwizard.tumblr.com/), and where online bug races are held (https://www.tumblr.com/tagged/bug%20race) in unspoken understanding between strangers to accept, engage, and build on one another's dreams. Strangers whose profiles express alienation with the physical communities and built environment around them, who, like me, struggle with binaries. Strangers stuck in big cities, who dream of meeting, playing, and breathing in a green that feels whole.
There is a sense of embracing the weird, of questioning norms, of forgiving exhaustion on Tumblr. To me, with the way it is designed in terms of structure and filtering possibilities, Tumblr almost feels like a place where there is no normal, where everyone is disabled, queer, neurodivergent, or in some other way an outcast and dreamer, looking for a space to be. To this day, Tumblr lets me experience communion with others through design that affords the creation of third spaces, from fan communities to peer support networks. Since being forced to leave the forest I so loved, Tumblr is the main portal through which I find respite in a nature that is physically out of reach, where I can immerse myself in images and films of forests. But what's more, I can do so while feeling a sense of intimacy with whoever placed this content online, a distant sort of intimacy that makes me feel like I belong not just with the trees but with other humans too.
Deepa Singh: At times, being different feels magical: I can spring out-of-the-box ideas really quickly, often think about things from multiple angles in tandem, and get tasks done in very short time frames. But there is another side, the side where I feel socially awkward, where I never believe I'm enough, where I struggle with intense emotions, feelings of overwhelm, and where I am exhausted by constant eddies of utter chaos in my mind. It is like having too many tabs open in my brain, all at once. A chaos that makes it nearly impossible to relax, feel at ease, feel calm, sleep, or just be. There is also this haunting feeling—or rather a realization—around being full of potential but falling short all too often that is my constant companion. There is also an accompanying fear always gnawing at me with the "what ifs" and the "if onlys" and chronic self-doubt that is steeped in the tapestries of my day-to-day existence. The opening poem attempts to metaphorically encapsulate these parallel emotions, of disappointment, fear, impending loss, and grief.
During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, I found myself confined to my Delhi apartment. Digital spaces like YouTube became my sanctuaries. Whenever I felt alone and needed to feel socially connected or like I belonged, one after another, I would scrutinize channels involving a smorgasbord of genres ranging from history, politics, cosmology, and Bollywood to tarot, farming, and Sufi music. My brain would rush to engage with comments while simultaneously trying to follow a channel's content; an insistent urge would make me instantly scroll down impulsively. I had to see what people were talking about while the content played in the background.
There was a strange allure to the comments section, where I found people's thoughts, voices, and opinions on topics, issues, and hobbies that I had come to love. I felt bonded to them through these utterances and intimate disclosures about shared passions. It was sublime to see strangers engaging in banter over music or tarot, sending one another prayers of safety and well-being—at what was globally a very difficult time—from across geographical borders, in a digital portal. Strangers would send comfort to those grieving beyond the distinctions of boundaries, religion, gender, nationalities, or similar dividing constructs. I saw strangers offering to virtually hold hands and space. And somehow, it made me feel safe, connected, and a part of it all—like I belonged to these diverse online communities. In seeking safety, refuge, and belonging, we found ourselves an in-between, a liminal space. A nook suspended in the digital world that offered the warmth of shared solidarity.
Grieving, healing, coping, and searching, we stumble upon third spaces built around shared ideas, struggles, and passions. We meet in digital communion to carve out that liminal space where we can be ourselves, away from the violating identities and imposed categories we never chose. Those of us that never find belonging in the physical world often seek sanctuary in the digital: We find solidarity, belonging, a voice, understanding, and acceptance, as we are. We explore and manifest our identity in third spaces online before we tentatively brave the normative and dangerous embodiment of the liminal in the physical space . Many of us have met, connected with, come to know, and belonged to groups and collectives online before (and sometimes without ever) meeting offline. At times, the nature of these spaces remain fluidly online/offline; they exist in the liminal space between. We spin tales and create cultures in these digital third spaces, thriving in the joy of communion with others in-between.
We are creating home around our chosen selves, things we care about, our hopes and dreams beyond the binary. These liminal spaces we dream of are a flowing and unconfinable antithesis to the oppressive normativity we are subjected to. As the world becomes suffocatingly small in the onset of instantaneous global communication and globally experienced crises, we find ourselves experiencing helplessness and otherness in ways we never knew was possible, and more of those who previously found their place in the binary and thought they belonged find themselves uprooted, embarking on the restless search for home, the path that many of us travel without ever arriving. Is the digital-liminal we dream of that third space where we could arrive at, belong to, create, grow, and nurture?
We long for communion with ourselves, with each other, with nature, with something more. We are struggling to break through boundaries and grapple with the spaces in-between; real and imaginary, physical and virtual, synthetic and natural. Queering technology design can guide us toward collective futures that are ecologically sustainable , and we consider the concept of third spaces an important tool in the ecofeminist designer's belt for deconstructing binaries through creating soft spaces of solidarity that have ecological sensitivity built in.
We understand ecofeminism as a critical theory , a movement transgressing the encumbering and oppressive folds of society to embark on a journey of creating enduring social epistemological  and ecological imaginaries. We frame the "ecological" as spaces in nature that enable both being and belonging, as well as the ecological-in-the-digital, which is an online (digital-liminal) space parallel to nature, ecosystems, and the environment. In going beyond this understanding, digital third spaces also engage with the ecological by striving for sustainability in their very conceptualization and building, at every step. These spaces, both real and digital, have been third spaces for us. Ecofeminism is where we come together to join hands to construct alternate imaginaries of seeing, meaning-making, and knowledge that embody care and solidarity while acknowledging and accepting differences beyond binaries and oppositional diametrics. Ecological consciousness, an earthy rootedness, and a persistent striving for building kinder, greener worlds where we are one with nature and all that surrounds us are quintessential characteristics of ecofeminism. These currents merge and join forces to build rich and nourishing grounds for new nooks and possibilities, where the steep divide between the self and the other begins to be bridged. The semantics of otherness begin to change as these currents steadily work at diminishing distances and the social disconnect, which characterizes otherness, instead building solidarity and belonging. With time, there remains nothing of otherness as we once knew it, and in its stead we have a space to be as we are and to coexist with others just as they are.
Ecofeminist design, while designing for difference, empowerment, care, solidarity, and sustainability, addresses interlocking systems of oppression. Thus, ecofeminist design could guide us in building third spaces that build connections between self and other beyond the mere interpersonal and interhuman, extending toward all of creation. These third spaces would attempt at gently melding the two core principles of ecofeminism—care (in the form of inclusivity, belonging, solidarity, and a space to just be) and sustainability. The third space, rather than overtly disrupting, enables a gentle but tenacious commingling, regeneration, redefinition, and renewal. In our reimagination, third spaces are spaces for yearning and approaching the dreams and worlds we hope for, and the sites for subversion of the status quo.
Designing for plurality and digital spaces that complicate "the mutually reinforcing logics of domination"  and transcend binaries while addressing the power relations and vast asymmetries therein, requires an ecofeminist technology design paradigm. A paradigm that strives to understand belonging beyond the self and the other, and to understand ourselves as a part of the whole, and the whole as a part of us (see opening poem). This is exactly what the ecofeminist theorist Ynestra King (in ) impresses upon us by highlighting "human liberation and our relationship to non-human nature" as the key objectives of ecofeminism. Design flowing from and calibrated by these goals and principles toward creating third spaces could help us grapple with alienation by working with it. By designing for softness, caring, slowness, diversity, and relationality, we may create more possibilities—in the form of fluid liminal nooks—for being, belonging, and meaning-making. These digital third spaces embody these liminal imaginaries and the diverse possibilities that lie therein.
3. While Bhabha develops liminality as a concept , in our reimagination, the term, though inspired by Bhabha's usage, is used simply to connote the word's literal meaning, which is "transitional or in-between."
4. Khoja-Moolji, S. Third spaces. In Critical Concepts in Queer Studies and Education: An International Guide for the Twenty-First Century. E. Brockenbrough, J. Ingrey, W. Martino, and N.M. Rodriguez, eds. Palgrave, 2016, 395–406.
5. Masking is a common coping mechanism used by neurodivergent people to appear, as closely as possible, neurotypical. Masking requires high levels of concentration and energy, creates massive dissonance within individuals and collectives, and can lead to issues with self-worth, depression, and anxiety as well as exhaustion and burnout.
6. Haimson, O., Dame-Griff, A., Capello, E., and Richter, Z. Tumblr was a trans technology: the meaning, importance, history, and future of trans technologies. Feminist Media Studies 21, 3 (2021), 345–361.
8. The term is used here in a broad sense to connote ecofeminism's navigation and subversion of power hierarchies. Ecofeminism and critical theory also align by sharing a predominant strand seeking human liberation through theory and praxis.
Deepa Singh is a doctoral researcher in artificial intelligence ethics in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Delhi. She has been an Indian Council of Philosophical Research fellow from 2020 to 2022. Her research interests include AI ethics and its operationalization, human-computer interaction, philosophy of science and technology, social and political philosophy, and epistemology. [email protected]
Kay Kender is a university assistant and doctoral researcher at the TU Wien Human Computer Interaction Group with a background in investigative design. Their research centers the experiences and dreams of marginalized groups, employing critical, speculative, and participatory design approaches to technology design and technology critique. [email protected]
Copyright held by authors. Publication rights licensed to ACM.
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2023 ACM, Inc.