Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Newfangled Networking

November-December 2004

Photomontages by Flint Born

Some people live at the technological vanguard. They operate their tie racks by remote control and read the barometric pressure from their watches. Their stereos have a setting that can make the sound of rushing water and toucans. Their cell phones-cum-cameras start vibrating at weird moments.

I am not one of these people. I own a cell phone that looks as though it could have been lifted from the belt of a security guard and, inspired by its comme-il-faut aesthetic, I put the display in French, a language fully committed to being a finger in the eye of change. When many of my peers joined Friendster, an on-line social-networking tool, a couple of summers ago, I threw my nose in the air. I'm not the guy who peruses eBay, I assured myself, and I'm not the guy who cares about Friendster and such.

Ah, but look at me now. Early last February, in the torpor between the start of classes and the first wave of midterms, I heard via e-mail about a website that one of my classmates had just launched. It was called Thefacebook, and it appropriated some of the social-networking concepts of Friendster to create an on-line community within Harvard. The idea seemed so clannish that I found it both repugnant and fascinating: I wanted to know what went on inside without being seen there myself. You cannot press your nose against Thefacebook, though, without leaving a mark on the window; the site admits only those who have registered as users, sacrificing their own anonymity to impose on others'. It makes sense, in a spoilsport sort of way. And after a few hours of tense vacillation, I decided to take the plunge.

Thefacebook works like this: You develop a personal "profile" by answering the sorts of questions that might arise if Truman Capote had written the census. You report your concentration at Harvard, phone number, hometown, and high school; but you also list your favorite books and interests outside class. You indicate whether you're presently interested in men or women or both, and how. Some people make you squirm with their soul-baring; others simply put their drivers' licenses on-line. Every field of your profile is searchable, which means that you can instantly find everyone else at Harvard who cannot get enough of Catullus. (At this moment, there are 14.) You soon learn not to raise too many eyebrows.

But the ostensible purpose of Thefacebook, like Friendster, is to build a "social network," which means making "friends." In the site's gestalt, friends are people who do not hate you. When you propose friendship to someone via Thefacebook, an e-mail announces the overture. When they next log onto the site, they can accept the friendship (in which case their photograph appears in a box at the bottom of your profile) or they can reject it (in which case you're told that the request is pending, endlessly). The whole process is no more taxing than finding a book in the public library. There are other bells and whistles, too, such as your ability to post comments on friends' profiles, or to "poke" other users — in which case a vaguely suggestive finger icon appears on their home pages.

 

The site was launched by Mark Zuckerberg '06, a computer-science-and-psychology concentrator with whom I shared a Straus Hall entryway my freshman year. At that point, he was best known for smaller software creations and for his habit of crossing the Yard mid-afternoon in his pajamas. Since Thefacebook started accepting advertising late in the spring, it's been an open secret that he's probably sitting on a gold mine. That's because no one, including Zuckerberg, anticipated how popular Thefacebook would become.

The breadth of its success is almost alarming. When Zuckerberg's Harvard site started brimming with several thousand members in late February, he opened parallel sites at Columbia, Stanford, and Yale, and soon followed suit with the rest of the Ivy League. By the time I turned in my last final exam in May, Thefacebook encompassed about 200,000 users nationwide. If everything goes according to Zuckerberg's plans, the site will have reached about 250 colleges and half a million users by the time you read these words. At Harvard, it has become one of those things — like making New Haven jokes or falling asleep in chairs — that nearly everyone seems to do. The University's version of the site now includes more than 11,000 members, not all of whom are students. An alumni enclave is scattered all over the country, and several faculty members have joined, too — some as rather conspicuous flies on the wall, refusing to supply anything more than required information, and others as enthusiastic participants. I have been "poked" by people who sit on tenure committees.

At first blush, Thefacebook seems to be a toy or a procrastination tool. It is both. I may become your "friend" tomorrow morning but, very probably, neither of us will remember by the evening. If I do remember, I will not care too much.

Yet Thefacebook's epidemic growth raises a lot of questions, both at Harvard and among students elsewhere. Matched to a broader proliferation of social technology in the College, it makes you wonder whether undergraduates — and their alumni counterparts — are still meeting each other the old-fashioned way at all. Thefacebook may not change your life as much as, say, the Atkins Diet, but it's already defined a new pattern of social interaction for hundreds of thousands of people at some of the country's most elite colleges. Are Harvard students as socially diffident as the new technology makes them seem? Why is it appealing, rather than depressing, to know exactly how many "friends" you have? And what will this mean 10 years from now, when these people are playing Chutes and Ladders in the workforce? This could be the new face of the old-boy network — so perhaps you should hire a consultant before you log onto any more friendships.

 

Nineteenth-century essayist Thomas De Quincey might have been onto something perspicacious when he remarked of his opium usage, "I could not have done otherwise." I like to think the same of my modest Internet addiction. At Harvard today, the business of being a student is conducted on-line.

Many sections are arranged via websites, and e-mail is the only way most students would dare to contact their teaching fellows — or, for that matter, their professors — in a hurry. You use the Internet to find books in Widener Library, to download syllabi, and, as of this year, to pay your termbills. You use e-mail to coordinate meetings for whatever extracurricular clubs you might have joined, or to advertise the musical you're producing. Thanks to your membership on half a dozen open e-mail lists — a concept that could only have originated with the same deity responsible for family reunions — you may spend your Friday evenings refuting the fatuous political claims of people you hardly know.

And behind the academic curtain, of course, hides the impish Oz-pretender of college social life. You use your computer to keep in touch amid conflicting schedules and a blizzard of course work; to make weekend plans; to pursue and even, perhaps, to woo. In the wee hours of certain Sunday mornings, someone you may or may not know sends you an e-mail possibly inspired by late Joyce.

It's within this fabric of crosshatching e-mail threads that Thefacebook and a slew of related websites have taken hold. ConnectU, a rival site, offers similar networking opportunities — albeit without Thefacebook's popularity to date. Hahvahdparties.com, also started by students last year, provides a running calendar of open social events and a selection of jaunty "party" advice. Last winter saw the creation of Crimsonhookups.com, a more-fabled-than-used on-line matchmaking service. It enables students who are really shy, lazy, pressed for time, or all of the above to arrange "hookups." (And if you do not know what that means, you're probably not supposed to.) This plethora of on-line social venues may suggest that students are interacting only on-line.

Yet this doesn't seem to be the case at all. Divya A. Mani '05, a vice chair of the Undergraduate Council's College Life Committee, says she doesn't view on-line social venues, plentiful though they may be, as major contributors to the College's social milieu. "In terms of meeting and forging real relationships with people, we're still fairly traditional, despite the runaway popularity of Thefacebook," she says. "My closest friends are those I met through housing assignments, common social interests,...and extracurriculars." Students generally approach their social plans with the same verve and variety they bring to everything else. "Without having conducted a scientific survey," Mani says, "I also feel like students have very diverse ideas of what 'social life' consists of" — and even so, she hasn't encountered a major enclave seeking a social outlet through computers alone.

That's good news to anyone west of MIT, but it doesn't explain the "runaway popularity" of Thefacebook and like sites. The mechanism that allows something like Thefacebook to be both popular and peripheral lies, perhaps, less in the particular technology and more in the people who use it.

 

As founder and chief developer of Thefacebook, Mark Zuckerberg spends most of his energy focusing on the website's development, expanding its reach and coming up with new features. He keeps track of who is using the site and how. A strange thing happened this past summer, he says, as the freshly admitted class of first-year students started looking ahead to the fall. "There are almost as many incoming freshmen signed up for the site as any other class," he explains. "And they were clearly using the site to meet people."

It was peculiar because Thefacebook, despite its many thousands of members, hadn't been used seriously to start friendships until then. In the months when it first staked out its users at Harvard and other colleges, the site was used only as a tool to maintain — or, at best, to strengthen — existing relationships. Mani says she's noticed that the site "does little in terms of people meeting entirely new people, and more in terms of people superficially reinforcing the social connections they've already made through other sources." According to Zuckerberg, many users employ the site's friendship invitations to follow up on acquaintanceships that might be too new or too indirect to warrant more direct overtures. College students, in other words, are using Thefacebook in the way that some people use dishwashing gloves: they've discovered that the site can help them polish social networks without getting their hands messy. Getting caught up in anything is dangerous if you're ambitious and very busy. And if you're a very busy college student, it's probably because of obligations pouring out of, well, your computer.

Journalist Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community and several other books, has built his career by studying social implications of technology. His daughter, now in college, uses Thefacebook. Rheingold says sites like Zuckerberg's are particularly appealing to current undergraduates because they cater to single people who have grown up surrounded by on-line technology. He also suggests that the site appeals to users affiliated with schools like Harvard because, in many ways, it seems to put up barriers of exclusivity. "I think there's something of a snob appeal in that regard," he says.

Zuckerberg says he doesn't like the idea of an exclusivity attraction. He likes to talk instead about a "tight connection" that the site aims to engender among its users. In the end, perhaps the distinction is largely semantic: Thefacebook's tendencies toward both inclusiveness and exclusiveness seem irreconcilable because they're shadows cast by the same thing seen in different light. What's producing the shadows is the site's intense insularity — and that may be the special something accounting for Thefacebook's unexpected success.

When I log onto Thefacebook, I can see all of my "friends" at Harvard. I have friends at other schools, too — many from high school, some rediscovered from elementary school — but they must be kept in a separate box on the edge of my profile page. I can browse information about anyone at Harvard, but at other schools I have access only to the profiles of people I've already befriended. I cannot search for students at more than one school at a time. Access is configured, in other words, so that I can never completely escape a Harvard bubble. It's hard to use Thefacebook without tumbling headlong into a steep sort of gemeinschaft.

College users apparently like it that way. "Our approach has always been to keep the spheres small," Zuckerberg explains. "It makes it so that it's more of a local community." People feel safer as part of a smaller group, he says, which makes them more inclined to post their personal information. This echoes the compromise that users make when they join the site: I expose myself in order to see others exposed. Thefacebook legitimates this shady-sounding arrangement because the site, to use Zuckerberg's phrase, acts "as a mirror of the real-life social network." I can actually meet the people I've befriended on-line. Some of them might even live down the hall.

Divya Mani says Thefacebook "has revolutionized...on-line stalking." Not the sort of stalking that leads to restraining orders, though; she means the sort of "stalking" that college students pursue all the time. It's essentially social research, and it's how I and most people I know keep abreast of other people's lives for entertainment, opportunity, and safety. Thefacebook makes finding out about someone's taste in music no harder than locating his or her name in a phonebook. It's a lot more expedient — and a lot less messy — than asking mutual friends or trying to wheedle information out of the person him- or herself. Here, too, students seem to be using Thefacebook as a bridge over the swampy minutiae of social interaction, letting students spend their time on "real relationships."

The site also mitigates the hazards of social life, for Thefacebook has no major perils. Conceivably, a kleptomaniac living in Eliot House could discover where you live and steal all of your favorite books, but this seems less likely in a small, well-monitored community than outside the University gates. Thefacebook isn't the sort of thing that can break your heart, either. Friends there cannot betray you. It's like a real social network, only more innocuous. As a user, I can project my social world into a completely safe environment, playing with "friends" like chess pieces. That's why it's so much fun.

Thefacebook and similar sites, in other words, are performative venues: stages with ready-made audiences where users can "perform" their lives, recasting them in the process. Howard Rheingold speculates that this accounts for much of Thefacebook's appeal for a generation coming of age. "The performative aspect of everyday life is magnified on-line," he explains. "You can pretty much construct your whole persona." Students at Harvard seem to be using safe, insular social technologies to help construct their identities at a point when such self-definition is the order of the day. That might also explain why most users have seemed loath to start new friendships on-line from scratch: such things are uncertain and dangerous on the stage — especially with so many other people watching.

 

Maybe it's shyness; maybe it's shrewdness. It seems, in any case, to be what happens when you raise a group of people on e-mail and Google and send them off to school. Where my socially efficient — if slightly antiseptic — peers and I will end up once we leave our universities is anybody's guess. Rheingold suggests that Thefacebook's social talons could loosen in a post-academic environment that isn't charged with the intimacy of a college campus. The site offers "a kind of a dimension between strangers and friends," he says. "Being on campus is a unique situation for meeting strangers. After graduation, people have other ways of meeting strangers."

Still, Zuckerberg says he hopes to hold onto the current crop of Facebook users as long as he can by keeping the site's capabilities up to date. He recently added a feature allowing users to log onto the site via their cell phones. Thefacebook hasn't lost its grip on anyone so far.

I have never tried the cell-phone thing, though. I'm convinced that my own phone would self-destruct in a cloud of silicon and cedillas under the weight of so much newfangledness. For the time being, at least, I prefer to log on the old-fashioned way.

 

The unforeseen success of the Harvard-founded website Thefacebook hasn’t gone unchecked. ConnectU, a rival on-line site targeting the same college users, leveled a lawsuit at Thefacebook on September 2, alleging a stolen business idea. ConnectU’s founders, Divya Narendra ’04, Cameron Winklevoss ’04, and Tyler Winklevoss ’04, want Thefacebook shut down and its profits handed over.

The conflict, according to Narendra and the Winklevoss twins, began last year at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg ’06, who had agreed to contribute computer programming to the nascent ConnectU, left the project and launched Thefacebook on his own. Their lawsuit casts a barrage of charges, from breach of contract to fraud, against Zuckerberg, his site, and four other employees of Thefacebook. The ConnectU founders sought legal action only after attempting unsuccessfully to indict Thefacebook under Harvard’s honor code: the trio met with University president Lawrence H. Summers last spring to present their case.

Zuckerberg, who has taken this semester off from Harvard to continue developing his site from Palo Alto, maintains that his unpaid association with ConnectU was secured only by a nonbinding oral contract. He has denied allegations that Thefacebook resulted from a stolen idea or purloined computer code, asserting that it differs from ConnectU on both counts.

Both the plaintiffs and defendants have secured legal representation from firms specializing in intellectual property law, racking up what could be six-digit legal bills as a result. But if the lawsuit is studded with dollar signs, the rival sites are ultimately competing over users: as of this writing, Thefacebook’s membership is approaching 290,000 users, while ConnectU, launched three months after Thefacebook, has 15,000.

 

You Might Also Like:

Isa Flores-Jones and Catherine Zhang

Photographs courtesy of the subjects

New Ledecky Fellows Isa Flores-Jones and Cat Zhang

A FOP group looks out over a lake in New Hampshire, August 2015.

Photograph courtesy of FOP

Want Freshmen to Bond? Take Them on a Hiking Trip

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Alumni Association

Harvard seniors help Houses thrive

You Might Also Like:

Isa Flores-Jones and Catherine Zhang

Photographs courtesy of the subjects

New Ledecky Fellows Isa Flores-Jones and Cat Zhang

A FOP group looks out over a lake in New Hampshire, August 2015.

Photograph courtesy of FOP

Want Freshmen to Bond? Take Them on a Hiking Trip

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Alumni Association

Harvard seniors help Houses thrive