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Facebook, the social network? A Harvard perspective

All right, I'm playing the card.

This card is issued to anyone who -- through the usual bizarre cocktail of effort and luck -- finds his or herself at Harvard. Usually, it's the card you never play. You never see a Harvard kid suddenly turn to the room and say, "Yeah? Well, I attended Hahvahd." The ability to do that is something you hand in at the door when you arrive. No, years of accepted practice state that the admission that you attended Harvard must be dragged out of you, painfully, with thumbscrews. When saying it, you blush, look down, and behave generally as though you were telling your conversation partner that you found yourself strangely attracted to seals.

Now the Facebook movie is out! You saw the trailer, right?

It's the new Citizen Kane, that movie that everyone talks about without seeing! It's hot! People are Googling it and buying tickets to the Oscars so they can be there to watch it sweep! And so anyone worth his or her salt (some people have more salt than others) is commenting on it. Who hasn't observed that Facebook has changed the fabric of our social interactions, that the digital realm has colonized the physical, that now you can see what your friend from high school's adorable baby looks like without lurking outside her house with a telephoto lens until a cop saw you and now you have to register whenever you move anywhere?

Everyone's said that, right? What am I supposed to add?

Sure, I'm a millennial. I was there on the ground floor of the S curve. I joined that group about people's oxen dying. I remember a time before "liking," when all your statuses incorporated an affirmative "is." I remember when everyone thought it was hilarious to create a profile for your thesis so you could say you were married to it. I could say that I sometimes wake up in cold sweats, gripped with my generation's deepest paranoia: What if I suddenly die and my Facebook status is something stupid that involves cats?

Everyone has something to say about Facebook. Classics, Mark Twain once noted, are books people praise and don't read. Not Facebook. Everyone uses it, nobody praises it. It's the one topic on which we're all, suddenly, experts. It's the great equalizer, the thing that allows Turkish strangers to friend-request me repeatedly.

That's why I'm playing the card.

During my senior year at Harvard, they filmed two movies there. One was The Town. You know the first scene, where they rob the bank? I used that bank once! Who knew that bank robbery was "a trade, passed from father to son"? Why don't they mention that in more trade school brochures?

The second was the Social Network. I had friends who spent 14-hour days appearing as extras -- David Fincher likes to perfect his shots -- wandering from one side of the screen to the other or just sitting there looking Final Clubby. Final Clubs -- wood-paneled hives of scum and villainy replete with designer drugs, or glorified frathouses, depending on whom you listen to -- do dominate the Harvard social scene. In the movie, the Spee should be nominated for some kind of Oscar for its portrayal of the Phoenix Club, although at times I thought it overacted a little, like when it bused in all those attractive women. The real Phoenix would never do that.

I'm not saying Harvard doesn't have a party scene. True, what I would estimate at around 50 percent of the Harvard population, often premeds, have no party scene at all. These are the people who show up on Harvard FML on Friday nights complaining about the fact that "I haven't left the library in 28 hours, and I think my orgo homework has started to spawn." Then there's a percentage who occasionally indulge, in moderation, with their friends. And then there's that one guy on your floor who stays out until 3:00 a.m. on Tuesdays and comes back with a broken arm. Multiply that by the number of floors around campus and you wind up with the frattish Final Club scene and a few other organizations -- the Hasty Pudding Theatricals spring to mind -- who seem largely capable of generating a good time. (As a Pudding alum, I urge any celebrity who is nominated as the Hasty Pudding Theatricals Man and/or Woman of the Year to accept the honor!)

The movie isn't entirely accurate -- as Aaron Sorkin explained, its loyalty is to the story, not the truth. Still, the Social Network -- the title is telling. Much has been made of the fact that Harvard is even more exclusive when you get there. Clubs -- even social clubs -- have application processes called "comps" or "punches." "Heavens!" everyone cries. "Imagine!" But so do people. I comped being friends with this one girl for three years, but I never made it on. Everyone's naturally selective, because we don't have unlimited time, and we all have preferences and eccentricities that suit us well to some people and less well to others.

Of course you'd come up with something like Facebook at Harvard. Because friendship can look like a series of competitions and networking opportunities, rather than the naturally lumpy process that it is -- if you don't make it in, that is.

When people were recently talking about opening up Final Clubs to women, the subject of "networking," the elusive network of alumni and friend connections, kept surfacing. The fact of being outside transforms the way connections appear. Facebook hasn't demolished that -- it's simply rendered it simultaneously more transparent and more opaque. You can see the connections you've made, and the connections that those connections have made with others. I wish it would let you see the photo albums of the enemies of your enemies, but I guess we're not there yet.

But by verbing the noun "friend," making friends things you collect in grosses rather than whittle slowly in a moonlit workshop, it seems to render ironic the whole concept of friendship. It's all just connections. Facebook won't tell you who your best friends are. Only actions demonstrate that, actions like writing on your wall frequently and becoming a fan of your personal page.

Facebook is there for our fears of exclusion, our fundamental lack of confidence in our human connections, the nervous sense that everyone else is always going somewhere else to have a better time. With Facebook, now you can see for a fact that they haven't been. But you're never quite sure. It's hard to tell from the outside.

And from the outside, Harvard looks like some sort of hunting lodge for rich weirdos, to paraphrase Rocky Horror. People mistrust it as a nefarious series of connections and mock you for attending when you invariably walk into doors and fail to operate simple machinery.

That's why they give you the card.

By Alexandra Petri  | October 1, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Only on the Internet, Petri  | Tags:  Facebook, Harvard  
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