College Facebook Mugs Go Online
June 9, 2006
Maya Chard-Yaron, 19, was poked about 10 times last week. But rather than getting annoyed at the unsolicited jabs, Chard-Yaron kind of enjoyed it -- especially since friends and acquaintances were doing the poking through a social-networking website, Thefacebook.
On Thefacebook [ http://www.thefacebook.com/ ], poking is a way of saying "hi" to would-be contacts, a method to strike up a conversation without adding the person as a friend.
And there's quite a bit of poking going on. Chard-Yaron, a Southern Californian who will be a junior at Columbia University [ http://www.columbia.edu/ ] in the fall, is one of about 250,000 students at 34 colleges across the United States intrigued by Thefacebook. Unlike social websites like Friendster [ http://www.friendster.com/ ] and orkut [ http://www.orkut.com/ ], Thefacebook is meant only for college students and alums.
"I know it sounds stupid but when I log onto Thefacebook and I see this person poked me I think, 'Aww,' 'cause I miss them," she said.
Thefacebook is modeled after schools' traditional facebooks -- booklets with names, photos, interests and other information about students. The site started in February and is expanding rapidly. Engineered and initially intended just for students at Harvard University [ http://www.harvard.edu/ ], Thefacebook's creators -- all five of them Harvard students -- hope to have their site available to about 200 American colleges by fall.
By registering on Thefacebook, students can compile lists of friends, send messages, list their classes and summer vacation plans, and divulge as much -- or as little -- personal contact information as they like.
Mark Zuckerberg, a 20-year-old Harvard student, came up with the idea in January. Harvard has facebooks for different residential houses, but students can't search those they don't belong to, Zuckerberg said. He said he thought it would be a good idea to put an all-school facebook online, where students could access others regardless of where they lived. By early February, after about a week of programming time, Zuckerberg's site was up and running at Harvard.
With an early pool of about 4,000 students, Thefacebook grew at the school to where it now boasts about 95 percent of the student population as members, Zuckerberg said.
"When it took off at Harvard I thought it'd be cool to make it a multi-school thing," he said.
In mid-February, Thefacebook's creators opened the site to students at other colleges, and the site's popularity kept rising.
"We've had to run to catch up with the number of users," said Chris Hughes, another Thefacebook collaborator.
Zuckerberg was surprised at his site's success initially.
"I expected that a few people would do it at Harvard and they'd tell their friends, but I didn't expect it would take hold as this all-inclusive directory," he said.
Some changes are also in store for Thefacebook users. Zuckerberg wants to enable users to offer more information about themselves, like extra pictures or their own websites. For now, however, students are just having fun discovering the site's capabilities.
Chard-Yaron is one of many whose friends e-mailed her a link to the site, asking her to join. At first, Chard-Yaron thought it was "weird" and "sketchy," but she created an online profile for herself anyway this spring, before exams and papers got underway. She said now she checks the site daily.
The site's founders are banking on its long-term health. Though the costs of running it have increased from about $85 to almost $3,000 a month, Thefacebook is now self-sufficient, thanks to an influx of ad revenue, Hughes said. Ads from search powerhouse Google will pay for the site for a while, Zuckerberg said.
The founders also aren't paying themselves, but they will hire a few people to help with the summertime expansion, Hughes said.
There have also been offers of outsider investments and even a few interested in buying the site, Zuckerberg said, but the founders turned down several buyout offers (they wouldn't say who made the offers or for how much). They aren't interested in cashing out just yet.
"We've had a few approaches," Hughes said, "but we like what we're doing to the site."