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Sarah Rosenthal '11: Facing up to Facebook

Welcome, first-years! Congratulations on being so awesome. You had the lowest admit rate, the best grades and SAT scores, even halos polished super-shiny by virtuous extracurriculars, and Ruth will no doubt praise you to the skies for it.

But being a freshman can be scary. In addition to rigorous academics and the inevitable commitment to various activities that you'll drop by sophomore year, you will be thrust into many uncomfortable social situations over the next few weeks as you try to figure out who your friends are. Facebook can be a useful tool in this process, but it's a double-edged sword, and one that is constantly changing the college experience. At no time is this more acute than during freshman orientation.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when a "facebook" was a physical object freshmen-to-be would receive in the mail.  It had only a single one-inch by one-inch photo of each student, along with his or her name and hometown. No favorite quotes. No thousand-plus pictures of your roommate and her high school friends making kissy faces at a camera. Back in the day, you had to wait to find out whether your future friends would go slightly out of their way to step on a crunchy-looking leaf, or if they had a desire to punch slow-moving people in the back of the head. No more.

Does this glut of information make the entry into college life more or less intimidating? That depends on the person, but it has definitely created a new reality, with its own negative and positive effects on social mores.

Con: Facebook takes away the fun and spontaneity of small talk. The more ubiquitous Facebook becomes, the more likely it is that the answers to the Freshman Orientation Trifecta — "So, what's your name? Where are you from? What do you think you're going to concentrate in?" — are already common knowledge thanks to the magic of stalking. Nonetheless, he will desperately try to act as if he doesn't already know about your prom date and your Labrador and your preference for Miller Light. On the other hand, small talk was never that fun or spontaneous to begin with, so that's not much of a loss.

Pro: Facebook injects you right into the comforting, pillowy bosom of the Brown community, thanks to the enthusiastic upperclassmen determined to let you know how much we all love this place. Every year, older students feel that they have a duty to the incoming freshmen to initiate them into the many wonders, mysteries and quirks of this place we call Brunonia. (Just kidding, freshmen, no one calls it that.) This is usually done through an "ask a Brown student" thread in the "Brown Class of 20XX" group, which many upperclassmen join totally of their own volition, without even the promise of free food! They will answer any and all questions you might have with alacrity, and on Brown's physical campus you will find that most upperclassmen are just as friendly and forthcoming in the flesh.

Con: Facebook encourages the creation of pre-conceived notions about your classmates. When it came to the Class of 2011 group, I was a creepy lurker, reading almost every topic but never adding my own comments, for fear that I would be judged. There were always the same 10 or 20 people who commented on everything, and I still remember many of their names. Mostly I "judged" them as friendly extroverts, but it's never safe to assume that you know anything substantive about anyone from Facebook. Don't write people off because they like country music (eww!), and don't assume you'll be friends because they, like you and everyone else at Brown, have listed "The Great Gatsby" as one of their favorite books.

Pro: Facebook's unique advantages make it a genuinely useful means of social interaction when you're occupying that liminal space between acquaintance and friend. Anyone with even passing knowledge of the site realizes that "friendship" is not necessarily meaningful, but writing on someone's wall or sending him or her a message when you're not yet at the level of a phone call or a lunch date at the Ratty is an increasingly acceptable way to break the ice.  Some people moan that the sentence-long dispatches that define social networking make the art of conversation as obsolete as a paper-and-ink facebook, but they also help the shy and minimize the pain of potential face-to-face rejection. If you want a real friendship, Facebook is obviously not the way to go — but it can be a good way to start.

Whether you view Facebook's ubiquity as encouraging or depressing, abstention from the site is ever rarer among college students today. So, class of 2014, happy friending, happy stalking and once again, congratulations on being the best class of all time — until the class of 2015 is admitted.

Former Herald Opinions Editor Sarah Rosenthal '11 is stalking freshmen as we speak.


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