College is supposed to be one of the most social times in a person’s life. A GW undergrad is surrounded by more than 9,000 peers and has access to hundreds of student organizations that bring together people with almost any conceivable common interest. But sometimes that’s not enough, and for a growing number of college students, the solution is only a click away.
“It probably makes rejection easier, too.”
Two years ago nearly 6 million Americans were using the Internet to meet people online, according to the research firm Jupiter Media Metrix. That figure has skyrocketed in the past two years, with Match.com alone boasting more than 12 million members and growing.
Once seen as the domain of lonely thirty-somethings, online meeting sites have repositioned themselves as social networks rather than dating services, opening them up to new audiences by selling the broader, more accessible concept of online “communities” to those who were scared off by the term “online dating.” At the same time, some sites have begun to narrow their focus to a particular niche, helping people of one social group find other members of that group who might not necessarily live around the corner. And that’s where college students fit into the picture.
“College can be really lonely if you don’t meet the right people, and when you have people online to talk to, even if you don’t know them, you feel connected and far less isolated,” said American University sophomore Dana Langguth. And she’s not alone – Langguth is just part of a growing number of college students who look to online communities to fill the gaps in their social circles.
Langguth frequents a site called CampusHook.com, which is part of a new crop of online meeting sites to pop up in the last year catering exclusively to college students. These sites allow members to search by school to find other people at their college. In many respects, it looks and works similarly to Match.com-style sites, but the focus is very different. Instead of looking to meet the love of their life, members are more concerned with getting other members to comment on their profiles. Comments are displayed within a person’s profile in a section called “official stances.” Some members say they find that being able to judge a person in advance relieves some of the pressure when trying to meet someone on the site.
“At first, (my impression of the site) was like, ‘face the jury,’ where you got to vote on people, but it’s evolved since then. I know a few people who do join (sites like this) and they do so because it’s a lot easier to meet people,” said University of Arizona junior Janette Corral. “You don’t have to go through the initial awkwardness of approaching a person, and you get to talk to them first without any pressure. I think it probably makes rejection easier, too. If someone doesn’t talk to you, it’s OK. You just find someone else to talk to.”
Whereas profiles on many other sites will contain descriptions of what members are looking for in a person and what types of people they want to meet, on CampusHook the attraction is more for exhibitionists and voyeurs.
“I’m not here to really meet anyone ‘special.’ I mean, I would never actually meet someone from this site or any other dating sites, that’s just weird,” said Daniel Steinman, a junior at Tulane University who uses CampusHook. “But I do think that a lot of people join these sites, not to actually meet someone and start a relationship with them, but more have to fun with it and get some self-satisfaction in saying, ‘Wow, this guy/girl thinks I’m hot.'”
Check any number of profiles on any match site and you’ll find a fair number of members who proclaim ardently that they really don’t check the site because a) they are just here for a joke, b) their friends made them or c) they were drunk. But for every student who isn’t comfortable with his or her online life, there is someone like Langgush who is.
“I went online looking for decent human beings to talk to, since I don’t have the patience to walk around campus wearing a sign that says, ‘Hey, I’m cool, I like these movies and these bands, and if we have anything in common, we should hang out,'” she said.
Then there’s 2002 GW alumnus Brett Model, who has spent the last two years traveling and uses the Internet to stay connected to Western civilization.
“I got into (online meeting) after I started traveling abroad. I found myself in the middle of China with really no one to talk to in English,” Model said. “I don’t think college students need to use these sites. I think it’s better for those who have just graduated college. It’s a way to stay in touch with your youth, I guess. A way to meet kids your age.”
There exists, however, distinct levels of involvement at work for those looking to make new friends in the online meeting scene.
“I think we should join Friendster! Meet new people.”
By far the most casual site of all is Friendster.com, which is more or less what it sounds like: a way to network for new friends without any particular focus or agenda in mind. Named the “Pet Rock of the Year” by Spin magazine, the site is high on the pop-culture radar: “It’s a new year. I think we should join Friendster! Meet new people,” quipped Seth Cohen in one episode of Fox’s “The O.C.”
Friendster operates like a giant chain letter. A member joins and invites friends to join, who in turn invite all their friends. When a member’s friends join, that member gains access to their friends’ list of friends. Members who hit it off with their friends’ friends open up a whole new web of contacts, and so on, connecting everyone like a giant game of six degrees of separation. It’s less confusing than it sounds. For some users, this can be the quickest way to find people with whom they share something in common.
GW senior Adesty Usman said Friendster helps her keep in touch with people her age who share her background.
“I’m Indonesian, and a lot of my friends (online) are, too, and through them I met others all the way from here to New York or wherever they are,” Usman said.
She added that because there are relatively few Indonesians in the area, she appreciates the chance to meet others online. She cautioned, however, that not everyone who adds a person as a friend will do so because they really like that person.
“(Some users) just put people on to say they’ve got more friends, like a contest to see who’s got the most,” Usman said.
Friendster is distinctive for its structured but casual approach to meeting people. But it’s not just people. There are profiles of pets, cities and inanimate objects. “GWU” and “Thurston” even have profiles on Friendster. That’s far from the norm for the online meeting scene.
“You’ve got to think of it more like you’re posting a resume for a job opening, and they’re all trying to fill it.”
Just as college students have started sites tailored to their age group, others have sprung up in the past few years to cater to a host of different communities. Jdate.com is a site dedicated to Jewish singles and extending a person’s Jewish community. For some, it’s just another meeting place; however, as GW junior John Bell* puts it, it can mean a bit more.
“(The site) breaks people down into Reform or Conservative. Well, for some of the Orthodox Jews this is a great thing, because they can meet people to share all that with, especially if they moved to a place where there aren’t that many” Bell said.
He said that just using Jdate to find an available single will get a person nowhere.
“You’ve got to think of it more like you’re posting a resume for a job opening, and they’re all trying to fill it,” Bell said. “I met (a girl) on the site and we started talking. Now we’re doing Birthright Israel together, (a program that sponsors Jewish youths’ trips to Israel).”
As with other online meet sites, looking at profiles on Jdate is free, but the site charges its members to contact one another. Depending on the site, fees range from $20 to $49 a month to send and receive e-mails with other singles. Bell explained, however, that this can be circumvented by clever users.
“My screen name is my AOL name, and here at the end of my profile it says, ‘Hey check out my handle. I’m online.’ People do that so you know that they can be instant messaged. See, the computer doesn’t recognize the word handle,” he said.
Profiles on the site are automatically screened for offensive words, and any attempts to give out contact information without paying for it. Bell said that users most often add the phrase “I’m me,” at the end of their profiles, so what could be seen as a statement of individuality is actually an invitation to talk via instant messenger.
Sites such as Jdate are becoming popular for all types of people who want to meet others who share a particular characteristic, be it race, religion, college, sexual orientation or something else. Vanessa Eugene, a sophomore at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., frequents BlackPlanet.com, a site tailored to the black community.
“I just got into it because I’d meet somebody and instead of giving me their number they’d say, ‘Just contact my BlackPlanet name.’ I didn’t have one, so originally it was just to keep up. But now whenever I go to a place, I know people that I can hang out with when I get there,” Eugene said. “I met people in New York, Texas, I even met somebody up in Canada … everybody has BlackPlanet at historically black colleges.”
The idea is a simple one – letting people meet others in a consequence-free environment, without the fear of rejection or embarrassment. These Internet sites are changing the way people meet, hook up and gossip about each other. As sites such as Match.com and Jdate continue to gain popularity, it won’t be long before Internet profiles are added to the long list of ways that GW students keep in touch with each other.