[Paleopsych] NYT: Our Towns: On Campus, Hanging Out by Logging On

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Our Towns: On Campus, Hanging Out by Logging On
NYT December 1, 2004

Princeton, N.J.

LIKE many addictions, it begins innocently enough. A
tentative experiment here, a repeat visit there. Before too
long, only the strong survive.

"At the beginning of the year you had people checking every
five minutes to see if they had any new friends," said
Isabel Wilkinson, a Princeton University freshman from New
York City. "I like to think it's subsided a little, but
it's still heinous in terms of procrastination or wasting
time. Last night I couldn't sleep, so I went on for a
half-hour or 45 minutes."

For those who assume that (A) the Internet has become the
world's most effective way to waste time and that (B)
college students now are probably having more fun than when
you were there, consider the reigning college obsession, a
phenomenon so hot that The Daily Princetonian editorialized
that it's "possibly the biggest word-of-mouth trend to hit
campus since St. Ives Medicated Apricot Scrub found its way
into the women's bathrooms."

That would be Thefacebook.com, a Web site that began 10
months ago with five Harvard students and is now the most
popular way to either network or waste time for a million
college students at around 300 colleges, from Yale to the
University of the Pacific.

Back when college students didn't all wander around campus
with cellphones attached to their ears, you enrolled in
college and got your facebook, a slim volume filled with
sanitized high school graduation photos of your fellow

Thefacebook.com still has faces, even if some of the
Princeton ones are of Don King, smiley stick figures or
some girl who looks as though she's waking up from a night
of downing tequila.

Students sign up from their campus e-mail address (only
school networks are accepted) and are able to visit the
listing of everyone who signs up at their school, with
thumbnail links (just name and picture) to students at all
the other colleges.

Diversions include profiles and photos you can update
whenever the mood hits, lists of favorite movies and books,
semi-imaginary groups to join online, course lists,
political views, relationship status, and, most important,
lists of everyone's friends both at your school and at any
others people care to cite. It's like the Swiss Army knife
of procrastination.

So, for example, Princeton students with a few hours on
their hands can sit in their dorms and check out the
profiles of the 395 members of People Against Popped
Collars (the preppy look of rolling up the collar of your
knit shirt) or the mere 28 members of Princetonians for
Popped Collars. He or she could join groups like People
Against Groups (15 members, first meeting July 23, 2025),
Chicagoans Sick of Suburbanites Saying They're From
Chicago, Future Trophy Wives of America and groups actually
about real things like politics or the outdoors.

Users could check out all the people who cite "Jane Eyre"
as a favorite book (about 46), Coldplay as a favorite band
(about 268) or "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" as a favorite
movie (6).

List members can peruse one another's pictures, sexy and
glamorous, ironic and cool or goofy or obscene, and most
important, play status roulette, checking out who has the
most and coolest friends. In a bit of online Darwinism,
students can ask anyone they know, sort of know or would
like to know to be on their official friends list with no
guarantee they'll say yes.

"It's definitely about status, but if you have too many
people on your friends list, it just looks dorky," said
Scott Peper, a freshman from Grandview, N.Y. "If you have
230 friends, you're taking it way too seriously."

GIVEN the ubiquity of cellphones, instant messaging and a
million Internet diversions, it could be argued that the
last thing students need is another virtual community.

"It's like a way to sort of interact with people without
really interacting with them," said Alicia Agnoli, a senior
from Martha's Vineyard.

But Evan Baehr, a senior who has done a survey of campus
politics and sexual mores by using Thefacebook.com, figures
that it more or less does what promoters say it does:
provide information that helps people make friends and form

Still, some don't quite see the point.

"Before I got here it was a way to get to know people,"
said Amanda Rinderle, a freshman from Amherst, Mass. "But
once you're here it sort of loses its purpose. Why not just
talk to them and get to know them?"

E-mail: peappl at nytimes.com


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