Katie Mullen’s Facebook page is a way to express her interests and communicate with her many UB friends.
ROBERT PAPE, senior English major and communication director for the UB Student Association, pulls up a chair to one of the myriad flat-screen computer monitors encircling a room on the third floor of the Student Union on UB’s North Campus, logs online, pops open a Web page and swiftly taps on the keyboard.
Seconds later, a virtual flood of up-to-date information pours onto the screen—personal interests, photographs, class schedules, contact information, messages and more—all about his friends and classmates at the University at Buffalo, and beyond.
For a generation of UB undergraduates, this is as natural a part of college life as final exams, homecoming games and late-night runs to the local pizza joint. Online communities that connect friends and classmates—a practice known as “social networking”—exploded on college campuses across the U.S. several years into the new millennium, as such sites as Facebook, MySpace and Friendster began appearing in the online marketplace. According to a recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are at least 200 online social networking services active; it’s estimated that 90 percent of undergraduate students are signed up with the most popular, Facebook, where it’s available.
“You’re going to be hardpressed to find a full-time student at UB who doesn’t have an [online] profile,” says Pape, who speculates that the phenomenon is even more widespread at UB than the national average reflects. “Facebook is a student’s best friend when it comes to communicating with other students,” he says. “There are students who will send someone a message on Facebook in lieu of an e-mail. Some people live on it. It has revolutionized the way my generation interacts with one another.”
The comparison to e-mail is apt, says Michael Stefanone, assistant professor of communication at UB who studies human-computer interaction, “ubiquitous computing” and online phenomena, such as social networking. “If you look throughout the long history of technology usage … ultimately new tools are adapted and adopted for social purposes,” says Stefanone. “The most popular Internet-based applications—e-mail, instant messaging—are fundamentally about communication, so it’s no surprise sites like these have become very popular.”
Facebook and MySpace are simply a new means for college students to engage in the same social interactions as earlier generations, he adds, but in a manner that reflects today’s high-tech college campuses, since access to high-speed Internet technology is an important factor in the social networking equation. Human nature, Stefanone asserts, remains the same, irrespective of changes in technology.
“Online notes, research materials, e-books, e-mail, word processors and even online lectures … the life of a college student is geared toward computers,” says Brian Marsh, senior physics major who interned this past summer in an undergraduate physics research program at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF). “This [online course] requirement certainly builds the effectiveness of online communities,” he says.
Online communities or “groups”—which are simple to create on sites such as Facebook—are a popular tool students use to feel more connected to friends, both on and off the Net. Marsh, for instance, relates that participation in an online group for UAF summer interns turned into a useful forum for him and his fellow student-researchers to communicate information, share group photos and plan rec time throughout their summer together in Alaska.
In fact, the ability to amass hundreds of photos in online albums and organize thousands of peers into a personalized cohort of friends and classmates are just a couple of the most popular aspects of online social networking—not to mention the features that prompted several UB students to refer to Facebook and MySpace as an unofficial, “personal yearbook.”
“I think [social networking] builds an even better sense of community than does a traditional college yearbook,” says Patricia Shu, a junior nursing major. “How often can you find yourself in a yearbook that contains about 30,000 students? Once? On Facebook, you have countless opportunities to … see captured memories with your close friends in your photos.”
“UB is just so big,” says Katie Mullen, senior occupational therapy major, noting that a yearbook at a large institution suggests “millions of pages of people that I’ve never even met. But I can go on Facebook and see the clubs that I’m in and the classes that I’m taking,” she adds. “I think that’s what makes social networking more ‘user-friendly’ than a yearbook.”
Marsh, a yearbook adviser at Kenmore West Senior High School in suburban Buffalo, agrees. “The larger the school is,” he points out, “the broader the yearbook becomes and the less attractive [it is] to students. With small colleges and high schools … a yearbook is very personal.”
Offering a similar endorsement is Seema Bhaskar, senior exercise science major, who says that social networking doesn’t seem to match a yearbook’s sense of permanence. “I will always cherish my yearbook more than Facebook because a yearbook symbolizes the time when I was growing up in high school.”
Still other UB undergraduates interviewed for this article see communication and constant updates about their friends’ contact information, class schedules and jobs as strengths that separate social networking from yearbooks, which remain frozen in time upon publication.
“A yearbook is filled only with the past,” says Jasmine Holmes, sophomore biomedical sciences major. “Facebook is the past and present, and a means of communication as well.”
For his part, international student Nischal Vasant, a sophomore computer science and electrical engineering major, says he uses social networking mainly as a communication tool. He points out that these sites mean that undergraduates can now stay in touch not only with old friends from high school over the academic year, but also with new college friends during the summer. “I’m in contact with most of my friends who are now scattered all over the globe,” Vasant wrote in an e-mail from India this summer, “which would otherwise be impossible.”
Nowadays, incoming university students begin to connect in cyberspace months before setting foot on campus, adds Kristin Carder, a senior sociology and health and human services major, and a resident adviser. According to Carder, her freshman residents began connecting and communicating online soon after high school graduation.
Stefanone agrees that there’s much for freshmen to gain from beginning their social networking before coming to campus. Recent research, he says, suggests lower dropout rates among students who participate in these sites. This is because social networking provides first-year students greater access to others who are going through similar experiences, he explains.
Indeed, requesting that a person join your list of online friends is a great way to break the ice and meet others in your specific major or classes, no matter your graduation year, says Heather Rae Ackerman, senior theater major. “You can click right on [a course title] and see who else is in your class, which a lot of people do the first week,” she says. “It’s easer to make friends with people in your classes that you don’t know.”
In terms of creating stronger ties to classmates in the same major, Ackerman points to her own habit and that of her friends to turn to classmates’ Facebook pages to see pictures from the latest student theatrical production, which regularly crop up online mere hours after the curtain falls. “The night a show closes,” she says, “you can go online and see pictures from the production.”
Today’s students are also focusing their cell phone and digital cameras on some campus-wide experiences, notes Pape, scattering a photographic record across the Internet no traditional college yearbook could hope to match. For example, the October 2006 surprise snowstorm that closed the campus and turned out the lights across Western New York, inspired students to create or join online groups whose titles include “Goodyear [Dorm] Blackout Club,” “I Survived South Campus Blackout of 2006” and “I Survived the Thundersnow of October 2006,” the last of which boasts more than 3,300 members from across the region.
What is the future of online social networking? No one can know for sure, but Stefanone reports that most experts and most students don’t see the trend ending anytime soon.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen when another generation turns over,” Pape says. “Ten years from now, are we all going to be checking our Facebook [profiles] from our offices at work on our lunch break? A ton of my friends just graduated, and they’re still using Facebook.
“We’ll see if we start getting wedding announcements on Facebook,” he laughs, “because that’s the next natural step.”
Kevin Fryling, MA ’06, is staff writer for the Reporter, UB’s faculty/staff newspaper.