Harvard students are rediscovering the meaning of friendship. An online site designed to connect old and new friends has everyone talking—and typing.
Today, two weeks after its inception, thefacebook.com has blossomed from about 650 members early last week to a network of over 4,300 student, alumni and faculty subscribers as of yesterday.
“I have no idea why it’s so popular,” said thefacebook.com creator Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06. “I was pretty surprised.”
He said that the number of registrants is likely larger than the 4,300 estimate because users can manipulate the website’s privacy options to prevent themselves from being counted in a rough tally.
Zuckerberg said that he thought that the popularity of thefacebook.com was due to its social networking abilities more than to its potential as an academic resource.
“I downplayed some of the functional parts of the website, like listing your courses, because I realized that people would use it for the social aspect,” he said.
Thefacebook.com, which resembles the website Friendster, enables users to upload photographs, personal information and their course lists. Members can create networks by looking up other users and inviting them to be friends.
After a friendship is confirmed, users are electronically linked to each other from their profile pages. The website also allows users to graphically visualize how their friends are connected in an intricate web.
Aaron D. Chadbourne ’06, who has racked up 159 friends on thefacebook.com, said he particularly liked how the website allowed him to see how people in the Harvard community are connected.
“I think that’s one of the great things about thefacebook.com—that it fosters a sense of community. You can forget that your friends are friends with each other,” Chadbourne said.
But member Samantha H. Fink ’07 said that she joined the website to utilize the functional aspects.
“I wanted to find allies for classes. I joined during the first week of shopping period, and people were talking about forming study groups. It was a very easy and convenient way to do that,” Fink said.
Several students complained that some users attempt to use thefacebook.com as a popularity tool and entice complete strangers to be their friends.
Fink said she avoided establishing friendship status with strangers.
“I feel mean rejecting people’s friend requests, but the only people I’m friends with [on the website] are people I’m actually friendly with,” said Fink, who has 175 friends on thefacebook.com.
While the majority of subscribers to thefacebook.com are students, there are almost 600 searchable alumni on the website as well.
Daniel J. Paisley ’02 said that he has been encouraging his friends to register on thefacebook.com since he joined last week.
“I joined the website to maintain connections to the school and to old friends,” Paisley wrote in an e-mail. “It also seemed like a fun alternative to Friendster, mostly because of the private-club feel of the Harvard-only site.”
He added that the list has drawbacks as well.
“Of course, there’s also the touchy issue of deleting connections to friends with whom relations have soured,” Paisley said.
Besides students and alumni, some members of the faculty have also joined thefacebook.com.
Teaching Assistant in Germanic Languages and Literatures Geraldine A. Grimm, one of the teachers who signed up for the website, said much of the faculty is prejudiced against the site.
“When I mentioned to some of my peers that I had joined, suggesting they might try it out too, the reaction was unanimous: ‘But that’s an undergraduate site!’” Grimm wrote in an e-mail. “One of my colleagues scoffed at the notion, chastising me for posting my profile and picture. He could not see the merit in being friends with a ‘younger’ person, which saddened me.”
Grimm said she hoped that thefacebook.com could unite the campus—and a provide a needed sense of community.
“After checking out the site, I was impressed by the all-inclusive nature of a Friendster-style Harvard site that brings undergrads, grads, alums, faculty and staff together,” she wrote.
Director of Residential Computing Kevin S. Davis ’98 said that the popularity of thefacebook.com will not ruin the College’s plans to create an official Internet facebook by the end of the spring semester.
“I don’t view the website as [potentially] being in competition. This is an FAS website, and there is clearly a need for it. It will be an always online, institutional facebook,” he said.
Davis added that the two sites will have somewhat different functions. He said that the Harvard website would be current, comprehensive database.
“We may not be replicating certain social features of interest from the third-party website,” he said. “I don’t at all mean to disparage the hard work of a Harvard student; I just think that the sites have very different goals.”
Zuckerberg said that he also thought that the Harvard site would serve different purpose than his website.
“My site is better in the sense that it’s more interesting to students. Harvard as an institution can’t touch the social networking stuff,” he said. “But we have roughly 55 percent of the student population, whereas Harvard will have 100 percent. [Thefacebook.com] is not as definitive as their website will be.”
Chadbourne said that he thought that thefacebook.com might not have longevity of an institutional facebook.
“I’m a bit curious to see if Mark’s website is a short-term phenomenon,” he said. “Last year there was a thing called buddyzoo.com where you could post your buddy list online and create a network, but after a while people definitely lost interest in it.”
But for now, thefacebook.com has taken Harvard by storm—according to Fink, perhaps to an unhealthy degree.
“People come up to me in Annenberg and are like, ‘Hey, I’m your friend,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘Are you joking me?’”
—Staff writer Alan J. Tabak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.