Pillbox

Web 2.0: Social networking in a college setting

With over 500 million users, thousands of games, several books on its use, and a movie on its founding set to open on Oct. 1, Facebook has become one of the most monumental inventions of the human race; yet other social networking sites, including Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, and LinkedIn, are quickly gaining prominence as well.

To avoid belaboring the point: Unless you literally live in a cave, you’re either a member of one of these sites or know someone who is. However, it should be mentioned that there are several ways — both helpful and sinister — that these sites can be of incredible use to college students every day.

Cyberstalking

The phenomenon of “Facebook stalking” is not new to most members of the site. “Cyberstalking” often involves a user looking over his or her friends’ profiles, but can also consist of sifting through conversations between strangers, poring through the sordid details of a friend’s user info, or digging up pictures from six years ago. It is often a first resource when searching out information on someone new or unfamiliar.

However, e-stalking has its repercussions: Users often forget that their information is privy to the eyes of others when they post it. “It’s invasive, but useful,” said Isabel Smith-Bernstein, a sophomore in H&SS. “Even though it’s public information, you’re still finding things out about a person without asking them. It just depends on what you’re willing to put online, I guess.” This is where the problem lies: Rather than learning information through face-to-face contact, users often resort to profile activity to give them an idea of a person’s character in real life. E-stalking can often lead to awkward situations where “friends” on Facebook have had little to no physical contact with each other, yet still know very private or personal information about each others’ lives.

Internet stalking has even become an offense serious enough to merit legal action, should one take it too far. Today, at least 47 out of 50 states have passed some legislation regarding cyberstalking, often labeling it a criminal offense comparable to face-to-face stalking and harassment. According to the Department of Justice’s website, “harassing or threatening behavior that an individual engages in repeatedly” may constitute a serious cyberstalking issue. The site also cautions that “the ease of use and non-confrontational, impersonal, and sometimes anonymous nature of Internet communications may remove disincentives to cyberstalking.”

The moral of the story? Be careful what you post online. That strange, yeti-like kid from your chemistry lecture might be watching from the shadows.

Socializing in the series of tubes

Beyond connecting strangers, user-centric content sites like Tumblr, Twitter, and LiveJournal often give users a way to connect and share interests across the world. Many, however, agree that these sites have their respective uses and flaws. Turadg Aleahmad, a Ph.D. candidate in human-computer interaction, said, “They’re double-edged in that they facilitate more frequent and easy connectivity to others’ lives, but it’s also a less satisfying interaction than face-to-face. Still, I like knowing what’s going on in looser friends’ lives so that when I do see them in person — say, at a party — I know what I’d like to ask them about.”

Students often use these sites to maintain connections to those whom they may not see often, including family and distant friends in different parts of the world. Sophomore Alex Klarfeld, an electrical and chemical engineering major, claimed that Facebook’s public publishing system is a “necessary evil,” but added that “being able to keep in touch with friends after high school through many different means, mainly pictures and messaging” is the ultimate benefit of being online.

However, with the advent of public online communication comes a caveat — privacy is no longer as hefty as it once was, and the concept of identity is changing. While you might normally share pictures of your wild Saturday night with your buddies, you might not necessarily want to pass them by Mom and Dad. “You can filter things to different audiences, but there is a cognitive cost to that, and you are thus inclined to share uniformly. Identity is contextual, though; you don’t act the same with your friends as your family, for example,” Aleahmad said. “These tools are requiring us to create a cohesive identity.” Along with the plugged-in nature of these sites comes a push towards collectivity, and a removal of the anonymity which the Web once ubiquitously provided.

Corporate cleanup

By far the most popular corporate networking site, LinkedIn is in wide use among adult employees looking to branch out. But for novices to the career market, as many Carnegie Mellon students are, it may not be the most ideal solution. Connor Fallon, a junior creative writing major, has had a LinkedIn account for about two years; he was recently contacted by LucasFilm on his LinkedIn profile, yet his profile is mostly empty. “I don’t use it that often. You get notifications that five people have looked at your profile, but it’s unfinished,” he said. Similarly, Jacob Beatty, a senior in mechanical engineering, added, “I think it’s intimidating. I would love to contact somebody from Pixar using LinkedIn, but I’d feel weird contacting other people ‘above me.’” The problem seems to lie in the intimidation factor: Instead of contacting one’s peers or friends, LinkedIn asks its users to reach out to higher-ups and network with big names. Students, noticeably, are reluctant to make such connections without a face-to-face relationship.

Instead, Carnegie Mellon students are quickly turning to other sources to present themselves and their work to employers. Tumblr, a blogging site launched in 2008, has already garnered 3 million users, and it accumulates approximately 15,000 more each day.

Tumblr also doubles as a portfolio site, which can be used as a presentation tool to potential employers. “I use my Tumblr as my sketchbook,” said Susan Lin, a junior in information systems. Despite coming from a technical background, she said, “They’ve made it easy for people who don’t know how to code to use it, and it’s easy to customize.” With thousands of free templates, Tumblr’s publishing system takes almost no time to learn and is excellent for keeping updated work online.

Additionally, sites like daPortfolio, deviantArt and Webs.com are popular resources for publishing work on the Web, especially for those not savvy with web design and content creation. Geared towards artists, designers, and writers, daPortfolio (www.daportfolio.com) and deviantArt (www.deviantart.com) are quick to set up and have volumes of help documents to assist in publishing. Students can post articles and artwork to their own personal portfolios, which can be customized. deviantArt also allows for comment feedback from other users of the site, and it has an active community that often selects pieces to receive site-wide awards and distinctions.

Webs.com, on the other hand, is more of a dynamic tool for all sorts of work. Harkening back to the days of Geocities and Angelfire, the site allows users to sign up and create a professional, slick-looking website for free — even without technical experience. Everything from compiled code to project specs can be added with ease to a site, allowing employers to get a quick idea of one’s recent undertakings with minimal effort.

With these options available, it’s simple to create something that not only showcases one’s work, but also delivers it in an engaging and aesthetically-pleasing way without the pressure of forming connections through the Internet alone.

Detoxing

With most students having an account on at least one of these networks, networking online can very quickly become a massive time sink. For this reason, many have begun the process of “detoxing” — either removing themselves from one or more sites, or taking a break when there are other priorities. Aleahmad advised trying a “slow media diet” to reduce time spent socializing through the Web alone. “The first couple days, I was surprised at how frequently I felt a compulsion to check one of those. Different events would trigger it — for example, returning to my desk from lunch. It wore off, though, and I gradually had more attention to deal with the things I really care about.”

With all of these tools at hand, the nature of face-to-face conversation and the implications of networking for the future remain to be seen. Yet one thing is clear: Social norms are mutating — and we are changing with them.