University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

About Face

A popular social networking website is changing how students interact

Walk down a busy thoroughfare on any university campus today, and, sooner or later, you’re bound to overhear that magic word: Facebook. The social-networking website started in 2004 at Harvard, and is now among the 10 biggest Internet sites.

Facebook has become the virtual town square for the U of T community: more than 61,000 students, faculty and alumni are part of the university’s Facebook network. It’s sprawling, chaotic and often a terrific time-waster, but increasingly essential to university life. One popular feature is events listings, where student groups post news about meetings or parties. One recent day in October, the U of T network home page touted a toga party, an open mic poetry reading and a game of hide-and-seek in the University College quad. Students had also posted messages looking for lost textbooks, requesting tutors and advertising apartment rentals. New features pop up daily, from online Scrabble games to music jukeboxes to virtual gifts.

Alumni are getting into the action as well, forming Facebook groups for their own faculty or class. The umbrella University of Toronto alumni group posts information about events and provides networking opportunities for its small but growing list of members.

This additional layer of interaction online is altering the social landscape in ways large and small. For students already living cheek by jowl in residence, it may seem odd to sit at your computer typing a Facebook message to someone down the hall, but it’s common. For commuter students who are not always on campus, it’s a way to stay in the loop socially and academically. But the site’s complex etiquette is still emerging. For instance, looking at someone’s profile if you aren’t officially confirmed as friends is known as “creeping,” a practice that is discouraged but widespread. And the way students present themselves – some are intensely private, offering few personal details, while others let it all hang out with photos, employment histories and romantic escapades – reflects the huge cross-section that mingle at the site.

However, Facebook shows signs of becoming a victim of its own success. Users such as Rachel dela Fuente, a fourth-year sociology and anthropology major and a Facebook user since her first year at Innis College, feel burned out by the flood of messages, articles, videos, photo albums and party invites that pile up on the site every day. “Sometimes I think it’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s a good way to get a summary of what’s going on with your friends, but most of the people that I do talk to [on the site] are the people that I talk to regularly anyway.” Facebook’s many contradictions have made it a fascinating, maddening and downright addictive tool for U of T users. But, as dela Fuente says: “I’ll lose touch if I don’t use it.”

U of T will launch its own online community for alumni this summer. Watch for a story and information about how to sign up in the Spring 2008 issue.

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