The Atlantic

What McDonald’s Does Right

Americans have fewer and fewer spaces to gather. That’s where nuggets come in.
Source: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The U.S. is riven by politics and race and religion and foreign policy and the economy. But one constant unites nearly all warring demographics: fast food, America’s highly imperfect, deep-fried North Star.

Sociologists refer to gathering spots outside of work and home as “third places.” Ray Oldenburg famously coined the term in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. To make quick bouillon of it, a successful third place has to be accessible and playful, a neutral territory that fosters conversation, a sense of communal ownership, and a constituency of regulars. Not only are third places essential for civil society and civic engagement, they’ve become rare in a country grappling with inequality and at a time when social encounters have gone heavily digital. That’s where fast food comes in.

Now, when I talk about fast food, I’m not talking; I’m talking about places that offer combo meals and have drive-thrus and suspect-looking ball pits. Most of all, I’m talking about places with true mass appeal that are neither too expensive nor exclusive for the American mainstream.

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