About Faces

New online community gives college students a way to connect, on campus and beyond.

August 01, 2005|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Twas a time not long ago when college students would arrive on campus like newborn fawns - nervous and wide-eyed, looking 'round desperately for someone or something familiar. To make friends, they'd actually have to get out and about, say hello to strangers on the Yard, join clubs, talk to people.

No more.

These days, the computer-savvy just hop on TheFacebook.com, an Internet meet-and-greet site that has become a surprise hit across the nation, growing from a couple hundred thousand users at its inception last year to 3.2 million today.

On Facebook, students can do what their elders only dreamed of doing years ago. From the privacy of their computers, they can view the self-penned profile - and photo - of every student on campus who has signed up for the site. They can find out who shares their interests, their hometown, their major, their dormitory - and sometimes even their significant others.

Then, with the click of a mouse, they can contact anyone on the site they choose, converse virtually and, at some point, count them as a friend.

"You can see everybody who is on Facebook. You can see their profiles. You can see their [message board-like] walls. You can see who their friends are, who they know at different schools," says Stephanie Tobia, 21, a senior communication major at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "It's the best thing."

Facebook - the latest incarnation of online social networking sites, such as Friendster and MySpace - was launched in February 2004 by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg and three of his classmates.

Quickly, it exponentially enhanced the way college students socialize, in the way that online dating, for instance, has made romance less about chance and more about choice.

"It has enlarged the number of encounters that someone would normally have with new people," says Steve Jones, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "You are invited to join it by someone you know, and in turn you invite people that you know, and you create links among the people that you know and that they know. It mushrooms into this enormous group of connected people. ... But the one thing they share is a link back to you."

Online club

It's like "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" for the college set, or that hair commercial where a girl says, "I told two friends and then they told two friends and then they told two friends ... ."

"It's become almost like a club, if you will, that we had in college in the '80s," says Kim Komando, host of a WBAL radio show that explores how computers and the Internet affect lifestyle. "But now, it's a virtual club that they have online. It's like going to a party, but the party keeps going on and on and on."

Using the Internet as a tool, Facebook - which requires a college-issued e-mail address to join - opens up the big, anonymous college campus in ways that were difficult, if not impossible, to do before.

Alex Erde, for example, will be one freshman at Binghamton University in New York who won't be navigating the campus alone in the fall. Using Facebook and other sites, Erde has contacted a number of other new students, and twice this summer has met them in New York to hang out and bond.

"It's better than having to get through the orientation without knowing anyone at all," says Erde, 18, of Scarsdale.

It also opens up the world. Students can connect with old high school buddies, exes and kids from summer camps gone by.

Michael Vachon, 22, of Rockville found cousins he never knew he had at the University of Florida because of Facebook.

"Distant cousins in Florida Facebooked me and said, `Hey, we're both Vachons!'" says the senior at University of Maryland, College Park.

(Yes, Facebook has become so ubiquitous, it's become a verb.)

Surpassed expectations

Facebook founders say they knew their informal-project-turned-Internet-sensation would be successful. After all, printed student directories on many college campuses - commonly called "facebooks" - are routinely pored over, dissected and memorized.

But they had no way of knowing that it would become the sweeping success that it has.

"Our expectations have been surpassed again and again," says Chris Hughes, a site co-founder and spokesman.

At each connected school, on average, about 80 percent of the student body are members, Hughes says. Every day the site adds 7,000 to 8,000 new users. And by Sept. 1, the staff of 25 will have added about 1,000 schools to the network - to include just about every single college in the country.

The network is supported mainly by ad revenues and "sponsored groups." For example, a company like Apple may sponsor a Facebook group for like-minded students to join - say, "Apples Are Better than PCs."

Since its inception, the site has become all sorts of unexpected things - a dating site, an online study hall, a message board and an excellent procrastination tool.

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