Whenever someone asks how I met my closest friends at Columbia, I briefly consider lying. "We were in the same Lit Hum section," or "We met at a party during NSOP," sounds less weird than "We became best friends online months before we actually met in person." I joined the Columbia University Class of 2016 Facebook group in November of 2011, where I (virtually) met the other early decision kids.
By the time the New Student Orientation Program in 2012 rolled around, I had spent nine months Facebook chatting and Skyping the other pre-frosh. I had gotten (virtually) close with about 10 other students, with whom I had had long (virtual) conversations. Thanks to hundreds of hours of online communication, I knew more about these people I'd never met than I did about most of my friends from high school. I was incredibly excited to go to my dream school, but I was even more excited to finally have "IRL" conversations with the people I'd been Facebook chatting for the better part of a year.
It makes sense that the first thing I did when I arrived on campus was meet all of my online friends. This process was actually a lot less disappointing than you'd think. Of course, a lot of online friendships fizzle out, and that's natural. To state the obvious, talking to someone online is fundamentally different from talking to someone in person. We've all experienced that disappointing moment when someone who was engaging and interesting online turns out to be boring or even unfriendly in person. Luckily for me, quite a few of the students whom I befriended online were pretty awesome to talk to in person. I'm still friends with some—but definitely not all—of them, almost two years after the initial Facebook contact.
The existence of "Columbia University Class of" Facebook groups, combined with the borderline-creepy eagerness of pre-frosh to meet other future Columbians, certainly encourages the formation of cliques months before first-year orientation even starts.
I don't think this is a bad thing. Before the invention of social media, I imagine that most college students went to orientation without knowing any of their classmates. To me, that seems scary. I don't do very well at large parties—especially when I don't know any of the other party guests—and NSOP is basically one huge party.
If there were no Class of 2016 Facebook group, and if I hadn't known any other freshmen when I started NSOP, I probably would have gotten overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. It's likely that I would have spent a lot of NSOP experiencing too much social anxiety to leave my room. Instead, thanks to social media, I had friends when I got to campus, which made NSOP way less intimidating. Of course, I didn't stay friends with all of my virtual BFFs, and I certainly made new friends through classes, clubs, and other activities. However, today, all of my closest friends are people I initially met online.
So what I want to know is this: Am I normal? Is it weird that I met most of my friends online, or does everyone meet their friends that way these days? It's clear that my social life would be completely different if I didn't have Facebook, because I would never have connected with my current friends online. As much as people make fun of how eager pre-frosh are to make friends, what's the point of "Columbia University Class of" Facebook groups if no one uses them to develop overzealous online friendships? And if friendships are forming online months before students head to campus, are those pre-frosh who choose not to engage in social media at a severe social disadvantage?
For me, friendship that begins online and then shifts to real-life communication isn't any less valid than a friendship that formed in person. The anonymity of Internet communication made me lose my inhibitions and allowed me to learn more about my friends faster than I would have if I'd met them in person.
Iman Fears is a Columbia College sophomore. Fears, Herself runs alternate Tuesdays.
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