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Facebook: The New Student Preoccupation

By Jennifer Gabrielle ’06

Link to Smith College facebook page

Oddly, according to its administrators, there are 3,461 Smith students signed up on Facebook, the latest student online preoccupation. That’s surprising considering there are fewer than 3,000 students on campus. But once you take a look at some of the possibilities, maybe that inflated number is not so surprising after all.

There’s no question that Facebook (at www.facebook.com), an online, interactive directory that connects people nationally via their student status and school affiliation, has staked a solid claim on the Smith student culture since its national launch two years ago. Students spend untold hours logged on to the Web site, checking their personal accounts for messages, joining groups of the like-minded, sending e-hellos to friends on other campuses, weighing in on pertinent issues of the day.

Smith students are by no means alone in their preoccupation with the resource. Each month, more than 8.5 million people—mostly students from colleges and universities across the country—use Facebook, according to Chris Hughes, a spokesperson for the Palo Alto, California, company. The site ranks ninth in overall Internet traffic, and has joined students’ daily tools of virtual communication such as emails and instant messaging.

But it’s difficult to say exactly how many students at Smith regularly use Facebook. More than 3,000? Is it possible? It is if you include the Facebook accounts of faculty and staff members, alumnae (even the deceased in some cases), house mascots and celebrities.

They are all among those with Facebook accounts at Smith.

The mascot in question is a dummy who sits in the foyer of Washburn house. Of course, the dummy himself didn’t create an account, but one of the oddities of Facebook is that anyone can create an account for anyone else, including fictional entities.

“He’s Safety Man,” says Andrea Rosen ’09, a Washburn resident, of her house’s dummy mascot represented on Facebook, “and someone made a profile for him.”

Another beauty of the site is that you can create your own reality. Rosen’s own profile, for example, claims that she’s married. “I’m actually ‘Facebook-married’ to my friend’s inner boy,” she clarifies. “Me and my friend believe that every girl has an ‘inner boy.’ He has a name and a persona and everything.” And on Facebook, he also has a wife.

Humble Beginnings
Facebook was created by Mark Zuckerberg in February 2004. A Harvard student at the time, he discovered a need to be able to identify people from other residential places on campus. “While each residential house listed directories of their residents, I wanted one online directory where all students could be listed,” he says. “And I’ve always enjoyed building things and puttering around with computer code, so I sat down and in about a week I had produced the basic workings of the site.”

The Facebook quickly expanded to other schools as social networks began to grow and overlap. Today, the Facebook is available to students from most colleges across the country, and to anyone with a .edu email address. Once logged on, users build personal profiles with information of their choice, including pictures, political affiliations, relationship status, scholarly interests, favorite movies, and contact information.

Students at other schools can view profiles of Facebook members and search for their long-lost kindergarten buddies, for example, friends from camp, or people from their high school class. The Facebook allows messages to be sent, and features postings on the “wall” of a friend’s profile.

The Facebook also enables students to create their own groups. At Smith, groups have been created, such as “Class of 2006,” “I've Got 99 Problems and the Long Walk From the Quad Is 73 of them,” and “Cisco Clean Access is a Pain in the #SS.” One of the more popular Facebook groups is “The I'm On Facebook When I Should Be Doing Homework” Club, with 228 members at Smith.

Some groups celebrate organizations, houses on campus and study abroad programs (see the backlash group “Cool Kids Don’t Go JYA”). Others define a very Smith-specific culture, like “Smithies Who Shave” and “Concerned Smith Students for the Advancement of Relevant Class Discussion.”

Not Only for Students
Patrick Connelly, assistant director of student activities, has a Facebook account and belongs to several Campus Center employee groups. He works as an adviser to student employees, who helped him create a profile last September. “They wanted me to have a Facebook account so I could be in those groups specifically,” he says. “I do like the fact that I’m a member of the groups I work with. It’s important that administrators participate in community, even in online forms.” He suggests that staff members might pursue “ways to use things like Facebook more effectively to build community on campus.”

The online community grows steadily as students create alter-ego profiles on Facebook. Bill Clinton is listed as an undergrad, thanks to Smith Democrats, complete with a major in government and a minor in women’s studies. Martha Stewart is in a Facebook relationship with Cookie Monster, and she has a group named after her: “Free Martha!!” Of course, Smith’s directory would not be complete without alumnae stars like Julia Child and Sylvia Plath.

Carly Anne Maberry ’08 joined Facebook just months before setting up Sylvia’s account. “One of the reasons I was drawn to Smith in the first place was because of Sylvia Plath,” says Maberry, who maintains the account every week. “She gets people pretty regularly asking to be her friend, so I have to go and confirm. She has over 600 people listed as her friend now, and not just at Smith.”

The Facebook has encountered problems with privacy issues as it grows in popularity. For example, some schools have faced difficulties as potential employers have caught on, and consult the Facebook‘s profile of a student before hiring, prompting students to carefully consider the information they post about themselves.

Nonetheless, it appears for now that Facebook is an undeniable force in the national college student community as hundreds of new members register for the free service every month.

Among college students nationally, and here at Smith, it’s the new electronic student preoccupation.

With contributions from Sarah Gauché, who transferred from Smith last year.

3/24/06
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