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April 30, 2004

U of C connects to new social website

A new website known as thefacebook.com may be the largest Internet trend to hit college campuses in recent months, and it will be available to University of Chicago students as of today, April 30, according to the website's founders.

The Facebook is an interactive website allowing college students to create profiles and view those of other students at their school. It is the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg, a sophomore at Harvard University. Zuckerberg's site, which is not affiliated with any academic institution, first opened up to Harvard students on February 4. Since then, it has become available to 30 universities in the United States. Accumulating nearly 100,000 users in less than three months, the popularity of The Facebook continues to grow exponentially.

According to Zuckerberg, the expansion of the site began at schools where there was a friendship "overlap" between those schools and Harvard. With most of the necessary web-infrastructure in place at universities, Zuckerberg and his team only have to configure the site to accept the schools' e-mail addresses of the students for login purposes.

The Facebook allows students to build their own profiles, with the option of listing their course schedule so that they can see who is in their classes while learning about their classmates. Perhaps its most popular feature is the ability for students to connect with each other by creating a "friends" network. Students can then see their social networks, similar to the Friendster website, which served as part of the inspiration for The Facebook. The site's founders have also created an extensive list of privacy features that enable students to limit viewership.

According to Chris Hughes, the site's press manager, The Facebook owes its success to a unique combination of fun and utility. "The Facebook is a tool where you build your own identity, see those of others, and connect," said Hughes. "At the same time, it is useful for finding contact information and starting study groups."

Hughes said that he and his team have been adding schools to the network at the rate of about three per week, while an average of 6,000 new members have registered daily. The explosion of the site's popularity at Northwestern has been particularly conspicuous, with some 1,700 users signing on in 48 hours. Hughes suggested that the popularity at Northwestern might stem from the fact that it was registered relatively recently, and students there had already heard about the site from friends at other schools.

In a New York Times article last Sunday, Emily Nussbaum wrote about The Facebook and a few similar sites, asserting their function to be somewhere in between a "procrastination tool" and a "flirtation stimulant."

"They're not so much literal personals as interpersonal experiments," Nussbaum wrote. "A way of making joking romantic overtures that might turn serious, given the right conditions."

Among college students, the website has yet to emerge as a popular dating tool. Emily Stolzenberg, a freshman at Princeton University, said that while The Facebook is useful for contacting classmates, some of the social effects are undesirable.

"It's really sad when people compete for who has the most friends," said Stolzenberg, who cited the case of one student who had asked almost everyone to be his friend, but whom virtually no one knew.

Other students, like Michael Abbriano, a junior at Harvard University, are not impressed with the utility of the new site. "As far as its usefulness, I think it mostly served as a timewaster," Abbriano said. "But people seem to like being able to see who's in their classes."

The Facebook has filled a void at Boston University, where the online student directory doesn't publish the students' pictures.  "The site has become the newest student obsession at my school and rightly so, I think," said Imogen Lee, a second-year at BU.  "It's a really great means for students to reach out to each other at a large school," she added.

On Monday April 26, online advertisements were introduced to the website, which will help fund The Facebook's expansion. Previously, the site's founders had funded the costs out-of-pocket. The founders say that there are no plans to institute user fees.

Hughes said plans for the future remain "pretty solid," with a goal of adding over 100 schools by the fall.