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Competition for Facebook

Competition for Facebook
May 20, 2005

Facebook is so fall semester. Well, not really, but several upstarts are competing with the 800-pound gorilla of online college “social networking.”

Facebook, like Friendster and other networks not focused on college students, lets students create personal profiles and build huge social networks by viewing and corresponding with friends of friends online.

Most recent to enter the fray is The Assbook, created earlier this month as part of a scavenger hunt – the clue was the site's URL – at the University of Chicago. When it comes to networking, the The Assbook gets intimate. This site  takes the frightening step of connecting people not based on mutual friends, but on “whom they have hooked up with.”

Whereas Facebook has the polite “poke” function, in which a message is sent alerting a user to the poke (or expression of interest from another student), Assbook cuts straight to the “smack,” “pinch,” or “tap that ass.” Granted, these functions are all just like Facebook’s poke. “But people seem to really enjoy the ability to pinch someone's ass, digitally,” said Yitzhak Wasileski, a Chicago student and Assbook entrepeneur. “So who am I to deny them that?”

With 1,400 users, the site has a long way to go to reach The Facebook’s 2.7 million, but, even without marketing it has already made a splash. “This is a labor of love in more ways than one,” Wasileski said.  "I am not a business person, I'm an academic. That's the difference, I think: people at Harvard would start something like this as a business, people at the U of C would start it as a social experiment.” And Assbook is not the only new student contender.

ConnectU is a site similar to Facebook. In fact, it’s so similar that the group of Harvard students that created ConnectU sued Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard student who created Facebook, claiming he stole their idea. (He says the lawsuit is a waste of time and won't talk about it.) Of course, neither of these should be confused with CollegeFacebook, which differs from each in that it has fewer features, perhaps a unique user or two, and the word “college” before “facebook.”

Among  the novel parts of ConnectU are the forums it links to. From their profile, users can look at forum discussions, user blogs, and messages posted on StallScribbles.com, the interactive grimy bathroom wall. College students metaphorically scratch their cyber-blather into walls of the virtual stall. All confessions are anonymous, with only the college and a prison-like number listed, so students can feel free to revel in the therapy the digital commode has to offer. “I'm going back home for the first time since high school, and I hope the girls I wanted to score with back then see enough of a change to be interested in me this summer,” reads the most recent post, number 1058644038 from the University of Massachussettes at Amherst.

ConnectU also allows realtime chat, and the “social butterfly” function that imports friends from hi5.com and myspace.com, two other networking sites.  Neither of them are college-centric, but one of the most popular features on myspace.com is “schools,” which shows users a network of students and alumni from their same institution. Myspace.com is the ego stroke of cyber networks. “Tom,” a site manager becomes your “friend” immediately upon registering.  Luckily, your new pal Tom is eager to share, so you already have a network of over 16 million people. Who knew you were so popular?
 
For students more interested in networking at the real party rather than the cyber party, iVenster is coming to a terminal near you. Four Williams College students founded the site in March. This online grapevine spreads the word for parties and events. So much for the old 8.5” x 11” toga party flier. iVenster allows you to post and view party announcements on campus, at nearby campuses, or at campuses you pick out. If a particular college does not have an event for the day, it gets the designation: “Very wack school. Nothing going on.”

And in case you are not sure whether to attend the foam party at Hunter College, or the Fire Department parade and block party at Marymount Manhattan, the site can search for you and recommend events based on your interests, whether they be parties, sporting events, religious services, or you can enter your own keywords. It then automatically lists them in your calendar. Whether to go with the sweater vest or the butterfly collar is still up to you. Professors can take heart that one of the first things the site asks is for users to fill in their class and exam schedules so iVenster will not book over them.

The verdict is still out on whether iVentster will explode.  But, a recent celebrity review on Amazon.com could bolster business. “Events aggregators are def,” wrote Mark Twainn. “Interesting to see if this grows as big as the Facebook.” With 340,000 users, it is not there yet, but growth has been prodigious. “It’s one stop shopping for college parties and events,” said Murtaza Hussain, Williams student and co-creator. He also noted that users have been tuning in for the party pictures, and recently added videos.

The 1,500 pictures are a miscellany. One shot shows a squirrel sipping a Budweiser through a straw. And there are plenty of pics of flushed faces crammed cheek-to-cheek, way too close to the camera. From the usage so far, Hussain has gleaned a profound conclusion: “Drunk girls kissing gets people really excited.” 

The competition does not exactly have Facebook shaking in its boots. “To our knowledge, there’s not even one [networking site] that has 10 percent of our user base,” said Chris Hughes, Harvard student and Facebook spokesperson. Still, Facebook is pushing forward. It adds a college or two daily, and recently started the “party” feature, which allows users to send invitations to their entire network.

As users go, The Assbook is currently bringing up the rear of the cyber networking gang. Rather than providing space for an existential profile of themselves, like The Facebook, where students often try to sound interesting by rewording mundane interests: “exploring baking cookies,” “wallet imprints in the back pockets of old jeans,” Assbook cuts to the chase: measurements, fetishes, drink, smoke, eat.

 

 

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