By Tanya Paperny
December 10, 2009

Some think Facebook eliminates the need for face-to-face meetups with former classmates, but online networking actually makes people more likely to want to see each other in person.

 

Contrary to popular belief, Facebook makes users crave real-life friendships.

In March, Jenna Wortham, a Brooklyn-based writer who wears trendy, oversized glasses, penned an article for The New York Times’ “Bits” blog called "Who Needs a College Reunion? I've Got Facebook." Her argument was as distinctly modern as her pink Twitter page: Because she was active on a number of social networking sites and already knew what everyone was up to, Wortham had no interest in attending her upcoming five-year reunion at the University of Virginia. “Blame Facebook,” she said.

Wortham may be genuine, but her piece—and others like it—are more evidence of sensational tech reporting than anything else.

In its five years of existence, Facebook has been blamed for everything from declining productivity in young people to the end of mass street activism. But that’s exactly what they said about the video games and the Internet. Don’t believe the hype. The proliferation of social media and young people's addiction to it does not equal the downfall of traditional, interpersonal social institutions. Facebook is not rendering alumni clubs and reunions useless, at least not on any scale that's worth noting.

Just ask Dave Levy, a graduate of Boston College who now works in public relations. Levy says that, for him, Facebook makes the prospect of a reunion more exciting, as it allows people to circumvent old formalities. “You can skip the basic get-to-know-you questions,” he notes.

The standard line of thought about why you should attend a reunion goes something like this: Find out if the jock is now a nerd, if the nerd is now a stud, and if the head cheerleader married young and already has kids. Yes, some of that shock and surprise might be somewhat diminished because of the ubiquity of online profiles, but that doesn’t eradicate the usefulness of reunions. By checking out other reunion attendees on Facebook, you can quickly dive into a topic you already know you have in common, which can facilitate a more genuine conversation.

Ed Kohler, blogger at the Technology Evangelist, adds, “Facebook will lead to richer conversations because we already have background on what people are doing.”

What’s more, contrary to popular belief, it’s good old-fashioned human interaction that drives the effectiveness of Facebook. According to The research of Nancy Baym, professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, "The more you are engaged with someone face to face, the more interested you are in following them and being connected to them online."

For their part, online interactions actually make people want to get together in real life. If online relationships work, people want to move them offline and feel connected to that person, Baym says.

That's the reality for today's tech-savvy generation, and it’s what makes arguments like Wortham’s moot: There's little distinction anymore between on- and off-line communication. “It’s seamless,” Kohler says. “A kid coming home from school can talk to a friend on the bus, then text them at home, and start IMing them later, and it doesn't feel interrupted.” Facebook friendships simply don’t present the dichotomy that many people are freaking out about.

What’s more, Facebook should probably be thanking the traditional institution of class reunions for boosting their numbers. “You actually see a spike in Facebook registration as reunion years are coming up,” Kohler says. “The classes of '89 and '99 have a spike right now because their ten and twenty year reunions are coming up.”

In fact, many alumni associations are using Facebook as both a fundraising tool and a place to market reunions. Andrew Shaindlin, executive director of the Alumni Association for California Institute of Technology (Caltech) says about social media, "Overall these tools are a boon to what we're trying to do." He says that planning events with a high overhead and large numbers of attendees is easier to organize on Facebook than the traditional mail marketing of postcards and save-the-dates. It’s cheaper, too.

At the same time, Shaindlin says alumni associations will have to accept a new role for themselves. "The only way I used to be able to track down someone I went to school with was to go onto an alumni website or … by buying an alumni directory,” he says. “[Alumni associations] controlled the access. Now I can find you on Google or Faceboook or LinkedIn in two seconds. [Alumni associations] no longer have a monopoly on that information. We have to be satisfied with influencing—not facilitating—relationships.”

There are, of course, still people who have no interest in attending their reunion. But they're the same people who would have ditched their reunion 40 years ago, when nobody had ever even conceived of Facebook. Perhaps they were bullied and had a terrible time at school. Or perhaps they graduated from their small town and escaped as fast as they could to a big city. Even outside of these clichés, there are just some people who don’t want to see their old classmates, and it sounds like Wortham is one of those people. Throughout her article, she seems to resent her alma mater, Facebook or not, writing, "I have no desire to join the rest of my fellow University of Virginia graduates in sipping mint juleps on the sun-dappled Lawn and taking tours of the Rotunda."

Perhaps she was never into UVA. While that’s completely her right, it’s important to remember that a cynic is a cynic—with or without Facebook.

Tanya Paperny is pursuing a master's in creative writing at Columbia University. She is a former Network Associate at Campus Progress and updates her Facebook page frequently.

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