Internet Boosts Social Scene
Students find friends on new sites such as thefacebook.com
By Elena Sorokin, Staff Writer
The Harvard Crimson
June 10, 2004
The internet bubble may have burst at the turn of the century, but the dot-com boom has just hit Harvard.
Enterprising undergraduates this year pioneered a handful of innovative social and networking websites intended to improve Harvard’s social scene, stoke students’ entrepreneurial impulses and even help students get a date.
In addition to appeasing the College’s procrastinators, purchasers and partygoers, these sites inspired similar ventures at other college campuses nationwide.
Of all these new projects, thefacebook.com—a social networking database for college students similar to Friendster—generated the most publicity at Harvard and beyond.
Launched to the campus Feb. 4, thefacebook.com has since expanded to 34 college campuses, including all eight Ivy League schools. Currently, it boasts over 150,000 members nationwide and includes self-registered profiles for over 90 percent of the undergraduate student body.
Spinning and Spawning
Before thefacebook.com took the campus by storm, an online entrepreneurial streak at Harvard was already underway.
CrimsonXchange.com, an auction website to help students search for everything from iPods to textbooks to furniture, was designed to allow Harvard students to quickly find and purchase items and evade the high prices at the Harvard Coop, said co-creator Sam W. Lessin ’05.
Another new website, Hahvahdparties.com, is a bulletin board and photo album which allows users to post invitations to parties or purchase photographs from events.
“Our first goal is helping the social scene,” said co-founder Zachary A. Corker ’04, adding that the University has not provided a venue for student clubs, fraternities or sororities to publicize their parties.
Hahvahdparties.com co-founder Paul H. Hersh ’04 said the advent of these websites offered direction for Harvard students looking for fun.
“You live in a confined sphere at Harvard,” Hersh said. “These sites provide an opportunity to expand your social ties outside of a small group of friends.”
Many believe that the popularity of student sites reflects an ongoing addiction of young people to the internet, because it serves as a social and practical tool.
Director of Residential Computing Kevin S. Davis ’98 said he believes the popularity of thefacebook.com reflects a “generation-wide phenomenon.”
“It has been interesting for me personally to watch the integration of technology into students’ lives and overall experiences,” Davis said.
John Norvell, a lecturer in Anthropology who teaches Anthropology 199, “Life On-Line: Culture, Technology and Democracy,” said in March that an online community of college students might not be completely separate from a real college community.
“The current undergraduate population came of age in the information era and takes it for granted. There are no distinctions between online and offline life,” Norvell said.
And thefacebook.com spokesperson Chris R. Hughes ’06 said the popularity of his website reflected this shift caused by the internet.
“Thefacebook.com is important because it shows the beginning of an increasingly important role of the internet in students’ lives,” Hughes said.
Only four months have passed since Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06 launched thefacebook.com, and the site has garnered more than 10,000 Harvard-affiliated members.
Thefacebook.com also serves as an umbrella website for smaller, exclusive communities, spanning 34 universities and regularly adding more.
It has created such a splash that references to it have become integrated in campus lingo and culture.
“This is something that affects you on a daily basis,” Lessin said. “There are hundreds of people in this school who I would nod to on the street, but thefacebook.com makes people you don’t know that well real individuals. I think it facilitates random conversations and connections.”
Unlike other online networking services such as Friendster, thefacebook.com is designed for college students who can only access pictures and information pertaining to people affiliated with their school or confirmed friends at other schools.
Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05 said thefacebook.com was “an incredible tool for gathering quick information” when forming study groups or organizing rallies.
But Mahan also said he feared that thefacebook.com had already “undermined the sense of community at Harvard” since it monopolized time that students might otherwise spend at community events such as sports games or House activities.
“Students construct an online identity that can place them in a box,” Mahan said. “There’s nothing wrong with a social network but I am concerned that people are too fixated on what’s there and not concerned at all about the information that’s not there.”
President of the Harvard College Democrats Andrew J. Frank ’05 said he paid $200 for a series of ads on the site to promote a May trip to New Hampshire and that he even created a College Dems profile.
“It provides a great resource to sort people very quickly,” Frank said. “This allows us to group members by Houses, by interests, or by where they’ll be this summer.”
But the website has also been under fire recently with allegations from three seniors that Zuckerberg stole the ideas for thefacebook.com while he was working on a similar venture, connectU.com.
But Zuckerberg, who has denied the accusations, is no stranger to campus controversy.
Prior to his facebook endeavors, Zuckerberg had to face the Ad Board after attempting to quantify hotness on a different website, facemash.com.
The administration quickly forced Zuckerberg to shut it down, as the site illegally used online facebook photos from nine Houses, placing two photos next to each other at a time and asking users to choose the better-looking person.
If thefacebook.com provides the friends, Hahvahdparties.com provides the parties.
Last summer, Zachary A. Corker ’04, Paul H. Hersh ’04 and Darren S. Morris ’05 designed a website to help students plan their weekends and publicize their social events.
“One of the motivations for Hahvahdparties.com is that there is no campus center,” Hersh said. “There is no universal central place, so we had to go external to the physical campus, to make it accessible to everyone, and that is why we chose the Internet.”
Corker said that the site receives 600 unique visits per week and over 1,000 on the weekends.
“Our goal has been to use people’s addiction to the internet to get them to go out with their friends,” Corker said.
And Harvard’s version of an online dating service appeared earlier this year in the form of an anonymously run website called crimsonhookups.com, which posts the names of the five most requested hook-ups on campus.
On the website, students enter their top 10 crushes, who then receive anonymous e-mails encouraging them to visit the site and enter their own top 10.
If two crushes request each other, both are sent an e-mail confirming the match.
Those who were targeted for hook-up requests said they were “confused” about exactly what their new title meant.
Gigi M. Garmendia ’06 said she discovered last February that she was listed on the top five most-requested hookups.
“I laughed. I was very surprised. I thought it was very funny,” Garmendia said.
Though the news did not spark any sexual encounters, she said, it did lead to a lot of “nerdy fun.”
Although the website boasts 270 matches between students, the most-requested hookups said they had not seen any piece of this action.
Lane D. Levine ’06 said that upon discovering his name among the top five he immediately followed the directions posted on the website, entering the names of 10 people with whom he would actually want to hook up.
“I doubt that any of the matches resulted in a hook-up,” Levine said. “It’s too odd. I can’t imagine the situation that would result.”
CrimsonXchange.com, the website that enables students to auction textbooks, tutoring services and House formal tickets, currently boasts about 500 users. About 250 items, Lessin said, had been sold thus far.
Lessin, who opened the site by posting dozens of his own belongings, said that most of the exchanges occurred early in the year—giving him and co-founder Tali B. Rapaport ’05 $2 for each book and $5 for each piece of furniture that was sold on the website. Lessin said that he stopped charging students several months ago after they evaded the fee by using e-mail to arrange private sales.
Molly M. Faulkner-Bond ’06 said that she thought the website was “grossly underutilized.”
“People simply are not aware that it exists,” she said, citing that she had entered a travel package in January that had not yet been bought.
But Robert Milosavljevic ’05 said that the website was a convenient way to sell books and furniture.“Though eBay has a much wider potential market, there is a lot to be said for someone hand-delivering stuff locally,” he said.
The websites recently created by Harvard students have inspired similar sites at other schools across the country, and each site has plans to expand in the fall.
Corker said that Hahvahdparties.com will continue in the fall under Morris’ supervision with the help of several recruits from a rush process, held this spring.
Lessin said that he had received requests from “several other schools” to create a version of CrimsonXchange.com catered to each distinct community, though he declined to name the specific schools.
“We have to figure out how to hold up this site and make modifications for each campus,” he said, adding that Harvard’s version would stay the same.
Hughes said that thefacebook.com will expand to over 100 schools by the fall. He said that McGill University would likely be the first non-American school to join the network.
Hughes also said that Zuckerberg is planning to integrate a new program called Wirehog which would “significantly change” the website—but Hughes would not comment on the new features. Davis said that Harvard’s official facebook—slated for completion in the fall—would not be in competition with thefacebook.com because it would include the entire student body.
Yet Mahan said he thought the administration was “innocently out of touch” with students on “90 percent of issues.”
“I had conversations with administrators about what their facebook would look like. The things that they were thinking of—e-mails and cell phones—were so basic compared to thefacebook.com,” Mahan said.
—Staff writer Elena P. Sorokin can be reached at email@example.com.