From Drew course blogs to alumni microbusinesses, social networking is changing campus life, careers, media, friendship and just about everything else.

By Allan Hoffman, Illustration by Camilla Engman

YOU WILL HAVE A FACEBOOK PAGE. You will update your status. You will friend people. You will have more friends than you ever imagined. You (or your kid, or maybe even your great-grandma) will start an online microbusiness with a blog and a T-shirt store and a vibrant community of like-minded sci-fi fanatics or quilters. You will spend endless hours tweaking your online persona. Your life will be different. Everyone’s will.

Social networking is an amorphous, hard-to-define trend exemplified by Facebook, the juggernaut of an Internet startup that’s now as much a part of college life as all-nighters and roommates. Though studies haven’t documented the degree to which Facebook has penetrated college dorms, it would be fair to say nearly 99.5 percent of students entering college have a Facebook page—a sort of online home that’s an emblem of your personality. “A lot of Drew students, when they’re talking about the Web, they’re talking about Facebook,” says Shannon Bradshaw, director of Drew’s computer science program. To employ dotcom lingo, Facebook is viral: The more students using it, the more useful and addictive it becomes. That’s because Facebook lets you record your own life (with photos and videos, with collections of songs you love, with updates on your “status”) and tap into your friends’ lives. Seth Gorenstein C’09 may be studying in London, but he can pop onto Facebook and within seconds see snapshots of his friends at Drew.

But social networking isn’t just Facebook. An entire constellation of Web sites, from Flickr (for photo sharing) to Geni (for collaborative family trees) to digg (for user-generated news), fall under the social networking label. The online world is an increasingly social place, encouraging us to make connections with people through food blogs and scrapbooking hubs and streaming music services. Nowhere is this more evident than among college students.

And how is social networking changing Drew? In many, many ways. It is everywhere.

The Facebooking of Drew

Before they ever met each other, incoming first-year students were getting to know one another—and we’re not just talking about those who’d been informed they’d be roommates.

One day last winter, months before arriving on campus, Sam Bryson- Brockmann C’11 created the Drew University Class of 2011 group on Facebook. Soon it was a hub of activity. Conversations got going on The Wall, a spot for freewheeling chatter; as is the custom, the conversation transpired in a rapidfire, lowercase blast of wordage (with comments like, “i just wanna room with a ball player or some form of athlete”). Would-be Drew students celebrated their acceptances: “hey i just got it!!!!!! yeay DREW!!!!” Mini-conversations developed: “does everyone know their big sis/bro already? My big sib is Caitlin Gallagher.” “My big sis is Caitlin too! She’s awesome!!!!!!!!!!!”

All of the worries and dreams and joys of the giddy pre-college student were hashed out. Will you miss high school? What cell phone service is best at Drew? What first-year seminar will you be taking? What are the best dorms?

Whereas previous generations of college students typically faced these questions alone, these students were already answering each other’s questions, and yes, developing something akin to friendships—even though they’d never met. “It absolutely made coming to college much easier,” says Kyle Gray C’11. “It let me know that other students had the same fears and concerns that I had.”

And it continues, even now, after they’ve met each other. The group now has 316 members. The Wall boasts 1,397 posts, with first-year Drewids still using it as a spot to connect. One guy asked if there were any skateboarders around, and another responded: “I skate all the time. Come by Holloway, and you’ll know what I mean.” The group’s now got 62 discussion topics—essentially more focused conversation spots than The Wall—with threads like “Where are all my drama nerds?!” (32 posts by 26 people) and “Bed Sheets?” (24 posts by 14 people). Facebook essentially functions as a shadow school operating alongside the real one. As Gray says, “Almost everything is coordinated through it.”

Come Together, Right Now

Online communities now develop around the most idiosyncratic of interests and events. When a short-lived blackout hit Drew this fall, a Facebook group popped up, devoted to describing where students were when the lights went out. (Colin Kanach C’09 created the group.) And where were they? “my room, watching Law and Orderon my laptop.” “a friend and i were on the stairs by baldwin and everything goes pitch black. being the girls we are, we started screaming and proceeded to freak out until an unknown boy walked us through the woods to Brown. thank you stranger.” “i was in my room and yelled and then jumped into my roommates bed.” “Tuvan Throat Singing concert in the concert hall…very cool.”

Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma, The Tobey Maguire Is Really Hot As Are People Who Look Like Him Society, I Like Libraries—all of these groups have Drew students and alums as members. Yet is it really a community if you just click to join? Social networking’s detractors fulminate against its excesses (like that Tobey Maguire group), viewing the trend as nothing more than a trifling plaything meant for the waste heap of history; yet if you spend any time on the Facebook pages of Drew students, you can’t help but sense a real and vibrant sense of community evolving through their hypercreative Wall posts, inventive profile wordings and out-there snapshots.

Required (Blog) Reading

If you think of blogs as hyperconfessional and self-obsessed, guess again. CEOs have blogs. New York Times columnists have them. And so does the Drew seminar Computing Technology, Society and Culture. Steve Kass, associate professor of math and computer science, decided to require his students to post essays to a course blog, which means students have a sense of each other’s work and ideas—certainly a plus for class discussions. The comments section of the blog lets students discuss the essays online. “It makes it a lot easier for everybody to read everybody else’s work,” says Kass. Were the students surprised to have a course blog? Not really. They live and breathe this stuff, viewing this sort of sharing—of their thoughts, of their ideas—as an essential part of what it is to live in today’s networked world (and networked university).

Boon for Business

Social networking isn’t just for college students. Lisa Clarke C’93—the sysop (systems operator, that is) for an early Drew online message board, the Drew Underground BBS, back in the early 1990s—used her social networking know-how to turn her love of polymer clay and other crafts into a minipreneurial online empire, Polka Dot Creations (polkadotcreations.com), composed of a bookstore, craft shop and blog where she writes about everything from sewing projects to shore trips with her kids. “I love that I can craft something and then within minutes photograph it, upload it to Flickr and blog about it,” says Clarke, who lives in Stirling, N.J. The community that’s developed around Clarke’s blog feeds her business. “I’ve had people tell me that they buy from me because they feel they ‘know’ me, and they’d rather deal with someone they know than with a faceless online megamart,” she says. “My readership is growing every day, and I don’t feel that I have reached my peak yet by any means.”

Chatter 24/7

Perhaps the most over-the-top incarnation of social networking involves updating one’s “status”—essentially a very brief rundown of what you’re doing, or feeling, at the moment (“this exam is harder than I thought” at 3:14 p.m., “off to The Acornoffice” at 10:43 p.m. and on and on). Here’s a typical sample, from Victoria Webbe C’09: “Victoria is wishing that people would stop taking ridiculous pictures of her and posting them on Facebook, but realizes it’s probably her own damn fault.”

Do Your Share

Whether you know it or not, you’re collaborating. So says Shannon Bradshaw, whose research delves into the ways individuals help each other, directly and indirectly, by the actions they take when they’re Googling, commenting on YouTube videos or just listening to Internet radio. As Bradshaw puts it, “You’ve got people trailblazing for other people.” Take Pandora, a streaming music service. Bradshaw learned about it from students in his first-year seminar, Web 2.0 and the Future of Media, Art and Information. “Every single one of the students knew about this site,” Bradshaw says, “and they use it all the time.” At Pandora, you can tune into “stations” created by other users based on their interests, and create your own. (Just type “Like a Virgin,” and you will have a new station, “Like a Virgin” Radio, with tunes similar to that song.) And now, by connecting Pandora to your Facebook page, you can share your Pandora stations with your Facebook friends. Rolling Stone reviews? Made completely passé by social networking—like a lot of things.

Never Lose Touch

Cheap phone service, texting and the ubiquity of e-mail have diminished the downside of big distances, but social networking takes this a step farther. Mike Degen may be a senior at Drew, but he can tap into Facebook and see what’s up with his 22 friends at Towson University, 16 friends at West Virginia University, 14 friends at Hartford Community College and on and on. A time suck? For sure, but a comforting one. Degen is the only guy from his high school at Drew, and Facebook, he says, means he can stay in touch with friends from home.

When students graduate, the networking continues. Sanjeevan Iswara C’06, an analyst at Morgan Stanley living in Manhattan, says he sends out invites to small gatherings to fellow Drew alums through Facebook. “It just makes keeping in touch with people easier, despite all the conveniences of text messaging and e-mails,” says Iswara. Losing touch with your college friends? Probably a thing of the past.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine a 2011 Drew graduate having a couple hundred fellow Drew alums as Facebook friends, circa 2036. Check your former hallmate’s Facebook page, and you’ll likely see snapshots of his teenager’s soccer exploits.

You. Will. Join.

Are you hooked? Repulsed? A bit of both? Like it or not, social networks are unavoidable. No one really knows where the topsy-turvy world of social networking is leading us, but clearly, when you have thriving groups on topics like photographs of circles framed by squares (just see the “squared circle” group at Flickr, with 5,417 members), big changes are afoot. “The students have a whole different set of information that comes at them about the world,” says Kass. “The common experiences are becoming fewer and fewer.”

Except for Facebook, of course. Whether it’s Facebook or some other service, the guts of social networking—the instant communities, the online profiles, the status updates—will be here for some time, affecting how people make friends, stay in touch and find their life partners. “They’re going to be using this for the rest of their lives,” Kass says of his students. “It’s not something they’ll just do in college.” Ultimately, this means that you’ll need it too—to connect with your kids, your colleagues or your Civil War reenactors club. Do you have a choice? No, not really. It’s only a matter of time before you join Facebookworld.

Social Networking Cheat Sheet

Want a crash course in social networking? Join Facebook (for free), and start “friending.” Then again, if you’re not quite ready to jump into the friend-crazed fray, visit the Facebook Tour (facebook.com/sitetour), user-generated news hub digg (digg.com), collaborative genealogy startup Geni (geni.com) or social music spot Last.fm (last.fm). All help explain the hubbub over social networking.

Blog Sampler

Check out the widely divergent subject matter in these Drew-related blogs.

Name: Daily Kos Diary
Blogger: Stephen Yellin C’10 
What you’ll read:
Jersey politics through the eyes of a 19-year-old Democrat

Name: WorldHope Corps
Blogger: Michael Christensen G’97,’95, professor, Drew Theological School
What you’ll read: News about his ongoing mission in Malawi

Name: This Week in Drew History
Cheryl Oestreicher G’09, university archivist 
What you’ll read:
Momentous events, sports milestones, dead presidents

Name: Armchairperson.com
Grant Gieseke, doctoral student, Graduate Division of Religion
What you’ll read: Thoughts from “someone who is unable to choose a name for his Web site that doesn’t make his wife giggle with derision every time it’s mentioned.”

Name: Drew University livejournal
Drew students
What you’ll read: Events, complaints, shoutouts

Drewids can keep in touch

with each other through an online alumni community that offers valuable tools like an alumni directory, classnotes, message boards, career connections and much more. Plans are in the works to offer expanded options later this year.

To join, go to drewalumni.org and enter your alumni ID number. If you don’t have your number, send e-mail to alumni@drew.edu.


Is Facebook “the Google of people?” A Drew sophomore says, “Yep!”

When I want to know about someone on campus, I go directly to Facebook and do a little electronic stalking. That girl in stats who wears a velour pant-suit every day? Turns out she went to a high school near mine. The towering statue of a man I ran into in the laundry room? Aww man, his page says he dates a girl from the field hockey team. Was that party I skipped on Saturday as lame as I thought it would be? It was.

That’s what Facebook does. It puts details about everyone you meet—or want to meet—a few clicks away. That intriguing junior boy who sits two rows down from you in Anth class? On Facebook, it takes only a few minutes to find out he is obsessed with the same cult-classic movie as you, loves Lipton green tea and, like you, is crazy about the White Stripes. Without Facebook, you actually might have to spend time figuring out what makes somebody themselves. Now people list their favorite bands and movies—and everyone becomes “instant acquaintances.” Congratulations, Facebook has just found you your soulmate.

I’m sure my productivity would topple records if Facebook ever shut down. But the hours are more than worth it. Facebook is the thrill of digging through profiles of people you’ve never met, unearthing connections between people, finding fresh gossip all brought right to your computer screen. But enough gushing. I have to check Facebook before I head off to Spanish. Who knows? Maybe laundry-room man’s relationship status has changed.—Michelle Caffrey C’10

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