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A Connected Campus

From a single phone number to 18,000 Facebook accounts in 99 years

By
Thursday, May 22, 2008

After three months of resisting, Kaya Schmandt ’08 joined Facebook in December of her freshman year.

“Everyone else had it and I didn’t,” Schmandt said. “I felt like I was missing out, because everyone else had pictures posted and would say, ‘We’re friends on Facebook,’ as though that somehow legitimized their relationships. And I wasn’t friends on Facebook with anyone.”

Three and a half years later, Schmandt has 396 friends on the site and, like most Facebook users, maintains a profile page that displays her photograph along with a list of interests and personal information. Any of the 17,444 students, alums, faculty and staff in the Brown network – which requires only a University e-mail address to join – can see that Schmandt concentrates in ecology and evolutionary biology, traveled to Madagascar last year and listens to folk-rock band The Mountain Goats.

When Schmandt graduates this month, she and her fellow seniors will hold a dubious distinction: The class of 2008 was the first in Brown’s history to enter the University after Facebook had taken hold here. When its members march through the Van Wickle Gates and down College Hill, they will become the first alums who never knew Brown without it.

Though there are no hard numbers, a large majority of undergraduates at Brown have joined the social-networking site since it debuted in 2004. Yet as Facebook’s popularity has risen, its use has drawn criticism from those who feel that it prevents users from making genuine social connections.

“When I was in college, the way you met people is you met them in the dining room or in social occasions, or in the usual kinds of activities that took place in dorm rooms. And it was all pretty much face to face,” said Professor of Computer Science Andries van Dam, who has been at Brown since 1965 and whose work has been integral to the development of the Internet. “I think the idea of having a network of 300 friends is ludicrous. No one has that much intellectual and emotional capacity to have sustained, real relationships with 300 people.”

Many alums voiced similar sentiments about other technology. Kathryn Robinson ’91 graduated from Brown less than two decades ago, but she says the changes since then have been drastic. These days, Robinson said, she and her husband “walk up on the campus now and we see all the kids just on their cell phones talking. And I think it’s great – wonderful, obviously – but we used to go to the Green and it was social. It was all social. People talking to each other, just hanging out on the Green. And I know that still happens, but … because we didn’t have cell phones, we were forced to interact with people.”

To observers like Robinson and van Dam, it seems like modern students’ adoption of social technologies like Facebook, cell phones and e-mail has created a sea change of such magnitude that it sets the nation’s current generation of undergrads fundamentally apart from those that came before it. But this isn’t the first time technology has changed life on campus. In fact, a series of innovations – from centralized mail delivery to dorm room phones to online instant messaging – have shaped students’ social lives for more than a century, a process that continues to evolve today.

A century of making calls

When Ruth Lubrano ’23 P’52 GP’91 was at Brown, the hot new social technology was the telephone.

Ten years before Lubrano enrolled at Pembroke College, the University had obtained a phone number ­- a single phone number – for the first time. Outside callers could reach the switchboard by dialing Angell 744 – A-N-7-4-4 – while Brown men could call outside lines from three booth pay-stations, two in the basement of Faunce House (then Rockefeller Hall) and one in University Hall.

Lubrano also had a telephone at her home in Cranston – a luxury at the time – and she used it often to talk with her future husband, Jack Lubrano ’24 MA’25, at night when the two had returned home after a day of class.

In Lubrano’s time, strict rules separated the women of Pembroke College from their male counterparts at Brown, and contact between the groups was difficult. “He wasn’t in my classes and I wasn’t in his,” Lubrano said. “Talking on campus was more or less a no-no.”

If the couple wanted to see each other during the day, they would have to arrange ahead of time to meet in the stacks of the John Hay Library. The Hay was one of the few places men and women could talk in peace, and often Lubrano and her future husband would be surrounded by other couples amid the bookshelves, all talking quietly.

More than eight decades later, Lubrano – at 106 years of age – is one of the University’s oldest living graduates.

She’s also Kathryn Robinson’s grandmother. And just as technology on College Hill today is a far cry from what it was in Robinson’s era, few in Lubrano’s time could have imagined what things would be like in 1991.

After Lubrano’s graduation, though, it took decades for the first changes to take shape.

“We were in the colonial times as far as telecommunication was concerned in 1947 to 1951,” said Cleo Hazard ’51. “There wasn’t anything.”

“We had a payphone in my freshman dorm so we could call home,” Hazard said. Outsiders could call the Brown switchboard and be transferred to individual dorms. “The phone would ring on the floor and somebody would pick it up and yell ‘Cleo, there’s a phone call!'” Hazard said.

Maintaining contact with home “was difficult,” said Lotte Povar ’48 MAT’62 GP’06 GP’10. “But that was the way the world ran in those days and you didn’t know any better. You wrote a great many letters to friends, and that was the way of communication … I wrote to my parents for many years every day, even if it was only a postcard, because that was the one way to be in touch.”

The University installed a payphone in each dorm for the first time in 1934. In 1951 it added more, so that each floor or tower had its own. Still, the shift had little effect on students’ lives. Cost was one factor. “Telephoning was just too damn expensive,” Povar said.

“If we got a long-distance phone call, we figured someone had died,” said Charlene Underhill ’59.

For the most part, though, telephones weren’t widely used on campus simply because they were unnecessary. “We had all of our meals served at the same time in Andrews, so you could see everybody that you wanted to see,” Hazard said, referring to the Pembroke dining hall. The same was true for Brown men at the Sharpe Refectory.

Over the next two decades, however, as per-minute rates went down and Brown became less centralized, demand for phones rose dramatically. In 1974, the University began installing telephones in all on-campus rooms or suites, replacing a system in which students with private telephones had to pay high fees for their installation. Calls to all on-campus numbers were free, and Brown published a yearly directory containing all students’ phone numbers. Students were quick to take advantage of it.

“Everybody was on the phone all the time,” said David Hammarstrom ’89. “The technology that meant the difference between life and death – social life and social death – was the answering machine, because you couldn’t count on your roommate to take the message.”

“Leaving the cool answering machine message was a big thing – the latest music and stuff,” said Associate Professor of History Karl Jacoby ’87.

“Those kiosks around campus that are mostly now just to dial for emergency, you could dial any on-campus number for them,” Hammarstrom added. “So you’d be near the Ratty and you would call somebody’s room who’s in Andrews and say, ‘Hey, do you want to meet for dinner at 6:30?’ So those phone boxes got a lot of use.”

Two decades later, Donata Secondo ’10 arrived at Brown at the beginning of her freshman year accompanied by her older sister, who had started college in 2000.

“As we were unpacking, she was shocked to find that I hadn’t thought to bring a landline phone,” Secondo sai
d. “She couldn’t imagine how I would stay in touch with friends – she thought I’d be completely isolated. And she insisted that we go to the mall to buy a phone, which ended up staying on my shelf gathering dust. I never gave the number to anyone but my mother and the only call I ever received on it was a wrong number.”

“She was really surprised that we didn’t all study in set places in the library,” Secondo added. “She was like, ‘Well how would you ever find a friend in the library if you needed to study with them?’ “

The answer, of course – and the reason that Secondo’s phone gathered dust – is that since the late 1990s most students have brought cell phones to campus.

Now, many can’t function without them.

Jacob Schorr ’10 lost his phone last year. “It was impossible to be in touch with anyone because I had to count on running into them,” he said. “I spent much of my time walking around trying to run into people … My friends thought that I was blowing them off.”

From p.o. box to inbox

For the first half of the 20th century, Brown students picked up their mail in individual dormitories. But as the University’s student body expanded, the administration needed a way to centralize its communications with undergraduates. To do so, it built the Faunce Post Office, which opened (to rave reviews) at its current location in 1952. The efficiency of the new system allowed on-campus mail to be sorted and delivered four times each day.

The P.O. quickly became a center of on-campus social life, and it remained so for generations.

Even after phones were put into each dorm room, “The big thing was actually checking your mail over at the P.O.,” Jacoby said. “We would check our mail like three times a day.” On Valentine’s Day the P.O. would be filled with flowers, balloons and candy, Jacoby said. Throughout the year its floor was littered with invitations and flyers.

“They would not do mass stuffings in mailboxes, so if you were going to have a party or something, you would run xeroxes and tape them on people’s boxes,” Hammarstrom said. “You’d get to your P.O. box … and depending on how popular you were, you’d have a whole bunch of invitations for parties that weekend taped to your mailbox.”

“When I walk through the mailroom now it seems a little bit dead in comparison,” Jacoby added. “Then it was much more of a social center because you knew everyone was going to come through there a few times a day.”

E-mail, in one form or another, arrived in the late 1980s, but for years it remained more a curiosity than a social tool.

“Everybody had the right to an e-mail account, but almost nobody had one,” Hammarstrom said. Since people checked it so infrequently, students used it mostly for listserv-style discussions about anything from technical issues to weird news of the day, Hammarstrom said.

Professors quickly took advantage of it as a tool for communicating with colleagues at other institutions. “I thought e-mail was a really great invention,” van Dam said. “But in no sense was it a substitute for face-to-face contact with people who were co-located.”

In the intervening years, e-mail has spread rapidly as a tool for communication between students and their friends at Brown and elsewhere. It has also opened connections between students and people they were once talked to rarely, including parents and professors.

“My mom is a really big e-mailer,” said Becca Coleman ’10. “She actually gets this e-mail (from Brown) that has a bunch of events that are going on on campus during the week, so she e-mails me and my brother: ‘You should go to this tomorrow, it sounds great.’ “

“When you wanted to talk to professors, you had to physically go to their office hours and talk to them,” Jacoby recalled of his time at Brown. “I only once remember talking to a professor on the phone.” Now, he said, “People will e-mail me at two in the morning and be upset I haven’t e-mailed them back by seven. There’s a sort of expectation of instantaneous connection with your teachers that you didn’t have before.”

As students’ communications with each other has shifted, the way that Brown’s administration reaches them has changed as well.

In 1909, University offices communicated with students through a bulletin board in the Student Union, which students were expected to check each day. The opening of the Faunce Post Office allowed for simpler delivery of administration mailings and departmental flyers. In the 1970s the Office of Student Life began publishing a bi-weekly newsletter with administration bulletins, announcements from academic departments and a calendar of events for the next two weeks. Today, the majority of communication is done via e-mail, including a daily digest called “Morning Mail,” which fulfills much the same function that Student Life’s newsletter once did.

“I’m on the speakers committee, and the students were saying, ‘I don’t check my mail now for a week because everything important I get from other venues,’ ” Jacoby said.

Cyberbrown

“Computers?!” laughed Daniel Harrop ’76 MD ’79, a clinical assistant professor in the Warren Alpert Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, when asked whether he’d used them at Brown. “There was a computer. One.”

The computer, an IBM mainframe, was housed in Brown’s Computing Laboratory on George Street, and it was reserved for academic use. In 1973, The Herald reported that the laboratory would cut services for low-priority users after a student used an advanced data plotting program to design a Snoopy calendar.

Students continued to view computers as academic tools, useful mainly for word processing, until the World Wide Web debuted in 1991. In 1993, the University installed high-speed Internet access ports in some dorm rooms for the first time.

In 1996, a computer dating service sponsored by the Undergraduate Council of Students drew 1,500 Brown students, who filled out questions like, “If you were to compare yourself to a car, which would you pick?” to get a list of their most compatible classmates just before Valentine’s Day.

That same year, online instant messaging arrived and quickly became popular on campus.

Though many of his friends had cell phones, said Ivaylo Piskov ’05, “it was actually much easier to get in touch with them with ICQ” – the first instant messaging program.

Nothing, however, could compare to the impact Facebook had when it arrived in 2004. Within months of its debut, a majority of undergraduates were members.

“I actually had Facebook the summer before college and it freaked me out, so I went off of it,” Schmandt said. “But I remember there were a couple of people who friended everyone in our class, and I still know who they are and recognize them on the street, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you’re the girl from summer before freshman year who friended everybody!’ “

“When I was abroad, Facebook was my primary way of keeping in touch,” said Lamya Khoury ’08. “Even though I was halfway around the world I still managed to stay connected in some way to Brown.”

“I came from a small high school where I recognized everyone,” Schmandt said, adding that her transition to college was jarring. “When you’re part of as large of a community as Brown, there’s something nice about having your own Web page that’s a smaller, self-defined community … just to put your world into context.”

Now, many students find it difficult to imagine life on campus before the site.

Without Facebook or cell phones, said Coleman, “I think people would just be a lot more isolated from each other. … I’d feel like I couldn’t get into contact with anyone, and I wouldn’t know what everyone else was doing. It would suck.”

Technology “keeps you connected to everything even if you’re just sitting in your room,” she added.

That, according to van Dam, is the problem.

“When somebody tells me that they spend two hours a day on Facebook, I think to myself, ‘Wow, I would have much rather had you spend two hou
rs actually meeting with people or playing Frisbee on the lawn or doing something that is more in the real world,’ ” van Dam said. “Get a life, people!”

“I think communicating in cyberspace – as convenient as it is – produces an unreal way of communicating with people, and comes at the cost of learning how to have good social interactions,” he added.

In the end, many students speak of the struggle to achieve a balance between technology and the real world.

Facebook “is nice for the events, and for getting in contact with people, but since everyone else is on it you never want to miss anything,” Coleman said. “If it didn’t exist, it would save me a lot of wasted time when I should be doing homework.”

“You just have to find the right balance,” Jacoby said. “You want it to be facilitating human relationships but not substituting for human relations.”

“The message you have to tell yourself is that it has an off button.”

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