On Campus, Hanging Out by Logging On
LIKE many addictions, it begins innocently enough. A tentative experiment here, a repeat visit there. Before too long, only the strong survive.
“At the beginning of the year you had people checking every five minutes to see if they had any new friends,” said Isabel Wilkinson, a Princeton University freshman from New York City. “I like to think it’s subsided a little, but it’s still heinous in terms of procrastination or wasting time. Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I went on for a half-hour or 45 minutes.”
For those who assume that (A) the Internet has become the world’s most effective way to waste time and that (B) college students now are probably having more fun than when you were there, consider the reigning college obsession, a phenomenon so hot that The Daily Princetonian editorialized that it’s “possibly the biggest word-of-mouth trend to hit campus since St. Ives Medicated Apricot Scrub found its way into the women’s bathrooms.”
That would be Thefacebook.com, a Web site that began 10 months ago with five Harvard students and is now the most popular way to either network or waste time for a million college students at around 300 colleges, from Yale to the University of the Pacific.
Back when college students didn’t all wander around campus with cellphones attached to their ears, you enrolled in college and got your facebook, a slim volume filled with sanitized high school graduation photos of your fellow freshmen.
Thefacebook.com still has faces, even if some of the Princeton ones are of Don King, smiley stick figures or some girl who looks as though she’s waking up from a night of downing tequila.
Students sign up from their campus e-mail address (only school networks are accepted) and are able to visit the listing of everyone who signs up at their school, with thumbnail links (just name and picture) to students at all the other colleges.
Diversions include profiles and photos you can update whenever the mood hits, lists of favorite movies and books, semi-imaginary groups to join online, course lists, political views, relationship status, and, most important, lists of everyone’s friends both at your school and at any others people care to cite. It’s like the Swiss Army knife of procrastination.
So, for example, Princeton students with a few hours on their hands can sit in their dorms and check out the profiles of the 395 members of People Against Popped Collars (the preppy look of rolling up the collar of your knit shirt) or the mere 28 members of Princetonians for Popped Collars. He or she could join groups like People Against Groups (15 members, first meeting July 23, 2025), Chicagoans Sick of Suburbanites Saying They’re From Chicago, Future Trophy Wives of America and groups actually about real things like politics or the outdoors.
Users could check out all the people who cite “Jane Eyre” as a favorite book (about 46), Coldplay as a favorite band (about 268) or “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as a favorite movie (6).
List members can peruse one another’s pictures, sexy and glamorous, ironic and cool or goofy or obscene, and most important, play status roulette, checking out who has the most and coolest friends. In a bit of online Darwinism, students can ask anyone they know, sort of know or would like to know to be on their official friends list with no guarantee they’ll say yes.
“It’s definitely about status, but if you have too many people on your friends list, it just looks dorky,” said Scott Peper, a freshman from Grandview, N.Y. “If you have 230 friends, you’re taking it way too seriously.”
GIVEN the ubiquity of cellphones, instant messaging and a million Internet diversions, it could be argued that the last thing students need is another virtual community.
“It’s like a way to sort of interact with people without really interacting with them,” said Alicia Agnoli, a senior from Martha’s Vineyard.
But Evan Baehr, a senior who has done a survey of campus politics and sexual mores by using Thefacebook.com, figures that it more or less does what promoters say it does: provide information that helps people make friends and form bonds.
Still, some don’t quite see the point.
“Before I got here it was a way to get to know people,” said Amanda Rinderle, a freshman from Amherst, Mass. “But once you’re here it sort of loses its purpose. Why not just talk to them and get to know them?” Autor: Peter Applebome