John Mimms, CC '08, made his first friends at Columbia before he even stepped foot on campus.
Mimms signed up for the CUCommunity web site in hope of meeting fellow first-years with similar interests, course schedules, or dorm locations. Now, several of the relationships created via Weblogs and instant messages have turned into friendships in Morningside Heights.
"I met a girl named Ellen on CUCommunity and talked to a lot on AOL Instant Messenger before we got to campus,' Mimms said. 'We met, and it was kind of awkward for a minute ... but now I"m friends with all her roommates too."
Now more than ever before, first-years who are not as computer-savvy as their peers might be missing out on some of the most extensive social networks on campus. In the past year, sites like CUCommunity.com and thefacebook.com have emerged as methods of linking students online well before Orientation Week.
CUCommunity, which was designed last year by Adam Goldberg, SEAS "06, allows students to post artwork, write personal blogs, and comment on other members" pages. Thefacebook.com, which began at Harvard shortly after CUCommunity was created, allows users to browse members" profiles, search for students with common interests, and send messages to friends.
The sites, each of which has inspired a wealth of copycats, are part informative resource and part entertainment. For first-years anxious about choosing classes, living in John Jay, or finding someone who shares a passion for country music, the virtual connections can be a reassurance that Columbia might not be so bad.
CUCommunity spokeswoman Laura Skelton, CC "06, said nearly all first-years have already registered for the site, without any advertising from site administrators. First-years heard about the site from Days on Campus hosts, Skelton said, and registered as soon as they had a Columbia e-mail account.
"This site has helped them to meet people from school and get a feel for life at Columbia before they even arrive,' she said.
Over the summer, many members of the class of 2008 used the Web sites to exchange messages with returning students to discuss questions and concerns. Questions ranged from simple uncertainties about basic college terms ("What is a discussion section?") to serious worries about college life ("Do you still keep in touch with your friends from high school?'). The sites also facilitated communication between orientation leaders and incoming first-years.
"So many orientation leaders and crew chiefs are on CUCommunity," said Carrington Lee, CC "05, an avid CUCommunity user. 'Older people offer up their favorite memories of orientation and encourage people to go to events and meet people.'
Eddie Beaulac, CC "08, used thefacebook.com over the summer to search for incoming students with similar political inclinations.
"I"m politically conservative, and I know CU has a reputation for being left-wing, so I searched for other conservatives,' he said. 'When you"re killing time, you want to find people who like the movies you like or have read the books you like."
Many upperclassmen capitalized on the sites' popularity with incoming students, conducting recruiting efforts via the web. On the Columbia Class of 2008 Web page on livejournal.com, political activists sought first-years to join a protest effort, while Zeta Psi advertised its Mardi Gras party.
Yet some doubt the power of Web sites to help form long-term friendships. Duncan Watts, a Columbia sociologist who earned praise for his 'Six Degrees of Separation' theory, said the Web sites lack a specific purpose in students" lives.
"It"s not quite clear what you do when you get there," Watts said. "You join up, and then what?"
Most first-years who have used the Web sites said they have had mixed experiences. Josh Hirschland, CC "08, found someone with whom to share Shabbat dinner on Friday, but another potential friendship didn"t pan out.
"One person seemed really different in real life," he said. "Online she was a really cool, fluid talker, but in person she acted awkward and couldn"t really carry on a conversation.'
And of course, there is the issue of how to act around people one has previously known only in cyberspace. Mimms, who became friends with Ellen and her roommates after trading instant messages, said he got stage fright when he saw another virtual friend at the West End. Mimms wrote about his dilemma on his CUCommunity page, drawing over 50 responses from sympathetic members.
"I totally thought I saw the member "Shaq," he wrote, "However, I was too scared by her online presence on this site to make an introduction. In the future, how should I approach the situation of seeing one of the heralded members of CUCommunity in real life?"
But Watts emphasized that virtual messaging is primarily about entertainment. He contrasted such sites with ebay.com, which created a market that did not previously exist.
"Human interaction is more subtle than trade," Watts said.
Yet upperclassmen like Lee said there are still benefits to such Web sites both for first-year and returning students. She has set up several meet-and-greets between first-years and upperclassmen at Morningside Heights favorites like The Abbey and Nacho"s Kitchen.
"I"m really glad that the more outgoing first-years have gotten into CUCommunity," she said. "The first-years are no longer this big unknown blob.'