It was a muggy August day on the UVA Lawn; administrators hoped the weather would hold for the Convocation ceremonies that were about to welcome the Class of 2010. The breeze fluttered programs placed on rows upon rows of folding chairs. Slowly, some traveling in packs from dorms, others filing in groups of two or three, the class of 2010 arrived in waves of t-shirts, shorts, sundresses, ball caps. The young group of about 3,000 shifted in their seats, trying to escape the humidity by fanning themselves with their programs.
UVA’s President John Casteen instructed the group of mostly 18-year-olds to look around at their fellow classmates. It was the first time and the last time the class would be gathered together until their graduation ceremonies four years hence. The class glanced back and forth at each other, smiling, staring curiously, savoring the moment that was the start of their college careers.
But, actually, it wasn’t the first time the class had been gathered together. They’d been together well before they met on move-in weekend. In a tight-knit community with its own set of rules and conventions, they’d seen each other’s faces, joined groups for common causes, sent electronic messages and posted pictures and messages on other people’s “walls.” They’d been together on Facebook, an explosive online network and a new staple of college culture. Equipped with their brand-new UVA e-mail addresses over the summer, many of the class of 2010 had racked up dozens of UVA “friends” before they hit Grounds.
Facebook is a social networking website that connects users through personal profiles that display a user’s photo and personal information. Name, class year, major, hometown, marital status, birthdate, address, phone number and e-mail address are all on view. There are also boxes where users describe their school activities and organizations, interests, favorite movies, TV shows, music, books and quotes. Membership in Facebook is linked to individual university communities—a user joins as a member of her college network. Users can “friend” people from other networks to gain access to their profiles [see accompanying glossary of Facebook terms]. A sense of user privacy has contributed to the success of Facebook. Access to profiles is restricted within University networks, so college users feel like they’re commercing online with the kids they see in real life every day. New features also allow users to restrict access to their profiles within the network, so that not everyone at UVA, for example, can view their information. This safety net of privacy (although a bit of a fallacy) makes Facebook rife with inside jokes, social sentiments, funny photos and lots and lots of personal information.
Favorite Facebook activities include managing one’s network by adding new friends, joining groups (some of these are based on real-life activities, like “Catholic Student Ministry,” others are based on what might be called personal philosophies, like the group called “Guys in Ties, Girls in Pearls.”) Users also “poke” other members (the online equivalent of winking at someone in class). They send messages to a Facebook inbox, post messages more publicly on a user’s profile “wall,” and—the most quintessential Facebook activity—users browse other people’s profiles, sometimes referred to as “stalking.”
Since it opened to UVA in spring of 2004, the college-based online network handed down from Harvard computer whiz Mark Zuckerberg has spread like wildfire. Research from early 2006 by Fred Stutzman, a Ph.D. in the school of information and library science at UNC-Chapel Hill shows 88 percent of students at comparable universities have a Facebook account. The average user logs on every day and spends 20 minutes “Facebooking.”
And the Class of 2010, bright-eyed, excited, nervous for their first year of college, would be the largest class of Facebookers yet. They would only have about three weeks to settle into their online lives before a disaster hit: News Feed, a new feature that streams information about all a user’s friends, would disrupt not only their Facebook home pages, but their sense of place within the online community that is taking over college life.
Playing the game
In a place like UVA, where students are used to being top-notch, Facebook is not only one of the most popular extracurricular activities, it’s a competitive sport. To play, it begins with the basic profile.
“If you were to go into the Facebook and just write a standard profile, that would be fine and a lot of people do that. But to be this accomplished Facebook user you have to show that you understand the culture of Facebook. You have to fit your identity into 15 text boxes,” says Stutzman, the UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral candidate. “To express individuality, to be on the cutting edge, to sort of be a leading user of the service, you have to understand the cultural innuendos, make yourself appear as a power-user of the service.”
UVA users have many ways of showing themselves to be proficient Facebookers.
One method is to get your numbers up. If Facebook has a running “point” system, these numbers, displayed on a user’s profile, are it: the number of friends a user has, the number of “wall post” messages that appear on a user’s wall space, and the number of photos of a user that have been tagged. Higher numbers on all these counts generally reveal a more proficient person, on Facebook and real life.
A complex set of “rules” govern Facebook behavior. For example, it’s stalkerish to “friend” someone you don’t know and have never met. But, speaking with someone once in class and Facebooking him is simply good networking, even if you never talk to him again.
While everyone wants to appear well liked, some older users of the site think the numbers game has gotten out of hand. Stutzman’s Facebook research shows the average college freshman at UNC had 46 Facebook friends by the first day of school, and some current UVA first years had over 100 before even setting foot in Charlottesville.
Jill Cockerham, a UVA senior, thinks the younger set can be a little too obsessed. “There’s people who, before they get to college, have 200 photos of themselves on Facebook. If you have a ton of friends, it looks like you go out and find people and friend them.”
Another increasingly common tactic for the Facebooker: lying. Even at a school with a supposedly revered honor system, self-inflation and half-truths are part of the Facebook game.
As of August 28 (six days after the first day of classes), 66 students in the class of 2010 had declared their major as Commerce, a competitive program that doesn’t start until students’ third year. Sixty-four students declared their concentration as medicine, which is obviously not a major available to undergraduates, and 24 declared political and social thought, one of the most sought-after majors at UVA. It accepts only 16-18 students per year.
Most of these students aren’t liars in real life. They likely wouldn’t lie to a professor’s face when asked about their major, for example. But, lying on Facebook is different. For users at the start of their college careers, it’s the result of a normal tendency to dream about the future, enabled by the slightly fantastical environment of Facebook.
“Students see this as a game, something that is qualitatively less than real…the key to winning in the Facebook is maintaining a good mixture of the real and false information,” Stutzman writes in his blog (chimprawk.blogspot.com).
Facebook has come to dominate real-life social interaction in many ways. Cockerham says guys at bars on the Corner won’t bother to get girls’ numbers, they’ll just Facebook them when they get home. Students frequently mention Facebook in conversation: “Did you see that Jen and Rob are ‘In a relationship’?” Facebook’s party invite feature allows you to see how many of your friends will be attending before you arrive (and keep track of the events you weren’t invited to).
At the peak of Facebook culture, nary a college event couldn’t be catalogued, written about, commented upon and viewed by all on Facebook.
The news-feed disaster
Then, on September 5, three weeks after the avid-Facebooking Class of 2010 hit UVA, a disaster way beyond your average, “the dining hall is no longer offering fro-yo” crisis occurred. Facebook made national news when it introduced News Feed—a feature that streams information from a Facebook user’s network of friends into a page that resembles an RSS feed. When students logged onto their home pages that day, they were bombarded with information like “Grant Bennett and Melissa Steber have ended their relationship,” “Sarah Hicks posted on Lana McClusky’s wall,” “28 of your friends are attending ‘Awesomest Keg Party…ever.’ Would you like to request an invitation?” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg thought the constant flow of information would increase connectivity among users and save them time checking individual profile pages for updates. But, users didn’t see it that way.
En masse, users joined groups like “Students Against Facebook News Feed,” which gained more than 700,000 members within days of the new feature. Online groups threatened to boycott Facebook and many users said they would quit the site. The Wall Street Journal picked up on the story on September 7. Facebook, the seventh most-visited site in the United States, was getting the “cold shoulder” from users. Zuckerberg posted a response to an angry petition from users, demanding they be given control over the new features: “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.”
On September 8, Zuckerberg posted an apology letter on the Facebook site and Facebook added features to allow users to control what information went into the stream. “We really messed this one up,” Zuckerberg wrote. “When I made Facebook two years ago…I wanted to create an environment where people could share whatever information they wanted, but also have control over whom they shared that information with.”
This seemed to calm the mob. Within a few days, hundreds of counter-groups like “Actually, I like the Facebook News Feed,” popped up and the debacle receded into a typically Facebook-ian sarcastic bustle.
For another few days, media outlets tried to hash out why Facebook’s users were so pissed. The Journal reported, “Personal information they had posted selectively had in a matter of hours become uncomfortably public.” Newspapers quoted users who said News Feed was “creepy” and “stalkerish.” Personal privacy issues dominated the discussion of Facebook’s new features.
But UNC’s Stutzman says the News Feed disaster is actually about culture and users’ self-identity. In a blog post “Facebook: A Generation’s Identity Archive,” Stutzman wrote of the News Feed shift, “This morning, millions of college students are thinking differently about their online identity… Millions of students were shown that they can’t actually rewrite history.” As an example, Stutzman writes, if “a student posts a change to their profile late at night, as a joke for a friend … that change is now broadcast to the entire network—and it is saved in an identity archive—the feed.”
Sam Lowery, a UVA freshman, says users felt guilty about the new features. “You realize… ‘Wow, I spend a lot of time on Facebook looking at these little details.’ That’s what makes them upset, because it reminds them of how it can get a little bit stalker-esque…people realize, ‘they’re just making it easier to do what I was doing in the first place.’”
Stutzman says Facebook’s executives broke its culture with News Feed. For one thing, they overestimated the value of friendship on Facebook: “Friendship in the Facebook is cultural currency—I link to you and you link to me. Implicit in this is a one-time exchange of social capital, nothing more,” Stutzman says.
Stutzman also writes about the chilling effect that News Feed will have on information exchange. Facebook users are used to posting information for an elite audience of friends who are insiders in a specific college’s culture. This gave users some semblance of control and a sense of place within their online universe. But, shortly after the News Feed disaster, another change to Facebook would threaten this idea of a virtual private space for the college set.
The second major shift to occur on Facebook within a month came on September 26, when Facebook officially opened to all users. Now, anyone with an e-mail address and an inclination to join the party can create a profile, which are organized not on university affiliation, but regions. College users who have been posting inside jokes and vaguely lewd photos of themselves may suddenly find they’re in company with co-workers from their town, or their grandmother in Albuquerque.
There had been murmurings of revolt among Facebook’s users since the site announced it might make the shift last month. Opening up Facebook to everyone violates its users’ elitist sensibilities, which have been part of the site’s appeal from the start. “Facebook’s founders understand the site’s power to confer social standing,” a May 2006 article in The New York Times pointed out. Matt Morello, a Yale student speaking to the Times, said of his profile: “I want certain people to get much more out of it than others, and for those certains to be impressed by my cleverness tempered by restraint.”
UVA students’ membership in groups like “Thefacebook Was Better When it Was Only at Elite Schools Like Uva” reflect a yearning for the Harvard-born network to remain a private space.
“Facebook very strongly reflects the offline networks that people are setting up, and that’s very powerful,” Stutzman says.
For this and other reasons, Facebook has enjoyed elevated status over MySpace and other social networking sites. Rod Aminian on September 15 wrote to the Gonzaga Bulletin about Facebook: “Ours is the way of neat layouts, semiprivacy and efficiency. Theirs is a world of annoying music, ungodly HTML designs and perverse morals…MySpace hates our freedoms…our freedom to not be solicited by bands we’ve never heard of…our freedom to not be added as a friend by some model/stripper.”
As ungodly as the open forum of MySpace seems to Facebook users, it’s looking like a better business model for investors.
Several media outlets have reported that Yahoo could be offering a $1 billion deal to buy Facebook. Fickle users are a primo concern for investors in social networking sites who want to guarantee profits in the coming years.
“When the club gets too crowded, the cool kids move on,” The Wall Street Journal noted in an article about the potential business deal.
Crowded or not, Facebook has no choice, however, but to expand its 9.5 million user base if it wants to guarantee profits. MySpace, with about 100 million users, was bought by News Corp. for $580 million last summer. And, Google recently struck a $900 million agreement for the search engine giant to sell ads on MySpace.
Facebook founder Zuckerberg has been waiting on the $1 billion Yahoo deal—reports have speculated he’s holding out for more cash. But, if Facebook is going to prove its worth, it must expand beyond its niche among college users, even as it threatens to alienate its core by doing so.
Facebook founder Zuckerberg insists the site remains an integral service for college students. UVA students commonly refer to themselves as being “addicted” to Facebook, and it seems difficult to imagine that something as integral to current college culture could fall out of vogue.
But, in the online world, things move fast. A slate.com article on September 28 compared the social networking deals to the 90’s dotcom bubble—an attempt to “monetize eyeballs” which yields “lots of traffic,” but “little profits.” Zuckerberg must prove to investors that not only is Facebook an invaluable service to its original user base, but it can expand to have mass appeal.
"They have to walk a fine line as they open up the network to people that weren’t part of that exclusive club," Mark May, an Internet analyst for Needham & Co. in New York, said to the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Before Facebook went public, users "felt they were protected from outside forces like advertisers, or commercialism, and also from the ‘dirty old man.’"
Facebook may have trouble convincing loyal users that they can still have fun on a site that’s no longer theirs alone. News Feed already forced students to reconsider their relationship to the site. Opening Facebook to the public may only further alienate users’ elite sensibilities within the online space. Facebook broke its culture, Stutzman writes, and “damaged cultures often never fully repair themselves.”
UVA students interviewed seem to agree, in part. Sophomore Sam Thienemann says, “It’s no longer the new thing to join or be part of. I feel like it’s kind of reached its peak.”
These are big concerns for the company behind the site, looking to make a profit in uncertain territory. But, if it happens, a toppled Facebook culture could leave users like the chronic Facebookers of the Class of 2010 at a loss for how to live their college lives.
Some students say Facebook has already had profound effects on college culture, even replacing certain aspects of real student life.
Thieneman started a group called “Hoo’s Leaving Facebook?” and gave himself a month to wean off the site before quitting for good. His reason: He thinks his college experience has suffered because of students’ excessive reliance on the site to form and maintain relationships.
“It’s kind of like a necessary evil, because you don’t feel connected with people if you don’t keep up with it,” Thienemann says. “[People] use it to give off an image of being social, but it’s too much of an artificial relationship with people.”
Once he’s off Facebook, Thienemann says, “If I want to get to know someone, I need to get to know them, and if someone wants to get to know me they can come talk to me, rather than just seeing whatever one page of a Web browser has to say about me.”
A student at Notre Dame wrote a letter to her school paper about deactivating her Facebook account.
“I believe the Facebok was a gigantic roadblock in my journey to become a better person. While others may use the Facebook for positive reasons, I, a true Facebook-aholic, allowed it to exploit every jealous and spiteful inclination I might possess in my far from perfect self,” senior Amanda Golbabai wrote. “Essentially, Facebook time was time I now need to spend actually putting myself out into the world instead of dawdling reluctantly in my dorm room.”
Golbabai’s letter touches on the point that no matter how active the network, socializing online is still a solitary experience.
Stutzman doesn’t think this is necessarily a negative reflection on culture. “It’s a common viewpoint that how students are living and how they’re spending time socializing online is somehow different or negative. I’ve seen it a lot and it’s sort of a viewpoint that I think is raised by people who aren’t in the generation.
“It’s very common for people to look at the culture and wave their hands, but what we’re seeing here is this generation building its identity,” Stutzman says.
Students can find the identity reinforcement of Facebook to be the hardest habit to break. They are afraid, if they quit the site, that friends will forget about them, that their place within the culture will be lost.
People not of the “Facebook generation” can little comprehend the need to reinforce real-life relationships with online ones. But Facebook’s popularity has left large groups of college students at a loss to recall what college was like before the site dominated campuses.
“I would never leave Facebook because one of the main reasons I got it is to keep in touch with friends,” Cockerham says. “I don’t think I’ll ever leave.”
Golbabai, who did quit her account, wrote, “I am terrified of life after the Facebook.”