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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Craving Community: Learning from facebook.com

— One way to tell if you are clued in to undergraduate life on your campus is how much you know about facebook.com.

Readers of the Collegiate Way will know that I often emphasize the importance of having a printed facebook for every residential college: a simple directory with photos of all the college’s members, a listing of rooms and phone numbers, a brief history of the college, and so on. Students will pore over their college facebook when it comes out, and will keep it close at hand all year long. Why? Because it’s simple human nature to want to know about the other people in your local community.

Building on this natural human tendency, some enterprising undergraduates at Harvard, familiar with the printed facebooks used in the Harvard residential college system, created an online service called facebook.com a little over a year ago. Last time I checked it had 1.8 million members, and reportedly adds 10,000 every week.

What is facebook.com? It’s like an online version of a printed facebook, except the users upload their own pictures and fill out profile forms that describe themselves. To make it interactive, each person has a virtual “wall” on which others can scribble notes, and there is also a “poke” function that lets you virtually poke other people. You can get detailed information only about the other members on your own campus, so it’s geographically self-contained, but abbreviated listings for other campuses are also available so you can add someone on any campus to your list of friends. You can also create affinity groups or clubs of your choosing, which may be serious or silly. On the small Middlebury campus more than 900 such groups have been created already. (One is called “Crack cocaine vs. facebook.com: only a chemist can tell the difference.”)

One of the keys to the success of facebook.com is that members are not anonymous: anyone with an email address from their home institution can sign up for free, and that email address is posted publicly. Although anyone with an academic email address can sign up, this virtual space is largely populated by undergraduates at present, and until they realize that us old folks may be milling around among them and decide to lock us out, you’ll be able to get a rare window into undergraduate life. One thing that may disappoint you will be the number of pictures and the number of groups that are centered around alcohol. But you may also be encouraged to see the degree of creativity that these flourishing communities embody. And you may decide to ask yourself what facebook.com is doing virtually, as a commercial enterprise, that your real institution, as a non-commercial enterprise, may be failing to do. Whether you can see it or not, there’s a large sphere of social interaction at your institution that isn’t taking place on your campus, but is instead taking place on the webservers of facebook.com.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016