“I saw you... looking like a dork. But I don't care how dorky you can be. I just want you to come be dorky with me, babe.”
“I saw you... sitting by yourself and I desperately want to talk to you... but I'm too incredibly awkward to actually talk to you AND be successful... but don't worry, I'll start trying when I get back from Spring Break ;)”
This, says Keone Hon, a junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is what happens when the romantic impulses of the college student meet the declarative instincts of the social media generation.
“My generation — we think about how we can broadcast our message to the world and share things with the world,” says Hon, who last winter co-created the site I Saw You MIT, a knock-off of the popular missed connections site ISawYou.com.
The MIT site, where the latter of the two messages was posted last week, is one of several college-based imitators that have emerged in the last few months to give students a way to anonymously express interest in a classmate (the first post is from I Saw You Harvard). Rutgers University and St. John’s University, in New York, also have knock-offs. The sites at each campus are extremely popular, attracting dozens of posts — including idle observations, crude come-ons, and lengthy love poems — and thousands of visitors each day.
“Sometimes in college, in spite of the fact that we’re surrounded by people, it can be really isolating,” says Hon. “I think people are sometimes willing to go out on a limb and express a feeling or thought, and see where it goes from there."
Anonymous social Web sites — especially those imitating larger forums, such as campus-specific "FML" and "Overheard At" sites — have become very popular among college students in recent years. But they also carry a stigma in some circles, since sites like the now-defunct JuicyCampus, and its successor, CollegeACB, have garnered criticism for being platforms for insults and gossip.
But the new sites aren't just about trashing people. The “I Saw You” sites are part of a trend that has seen many students’ love lives follow their social lives to the Web. Nor is it only missed connections sites; students are increasingly signing up for online dating services. Stir.com, a spinoff of the popular dating site Match.com that caters to 18-to-25-year-olds, boasts 500,000 users and targets college students in particular, according to Steve Hammer, its chief audience developer. And about a quarter of the 750,000 members of OKCupid.com, another popular dating site, are college students, according to a spokesman.
Once upon a time, a college date meant getting up the guts to ask someone out. But the Internet has eliminated the need to be quite so bold. Online dating sites usually don’t require users to disclose their identities, and another breed of matching service, known as the “crush finder,” allows students to list their crushes in order to cross-reference them with the lists of others, revealing the names of the secret admirers only where the feeling is mutual.
Student programmers on some campuses in past years have developed crush finders for certain occasions — often for seniors looking to consummate unrealized attractions on the eve of graduation. One new site, GoodCrush.com, is attempting to build a syndicate of college romance sites pegged to individual campuses, using the idea of the crush finder as the centerpiece of a suite of features that could include a missed connections page, double-blind messaging, and video-chatting.
In fact, the site’s creator, recent Princeton University graduate Josh Weinstein, recently created a cross-institutional video-chatting service called RandomDorm.com, hoping to capitalize on the sudden, immense popularity of Chatroulette, a service that lets users video-chat with random strangers. Chatroulette has gained some notoriety for being a haven for exhibitionists. But Weinstein sought to control for lewd behavior by requiring users to access RandomDorm.com through Facebook, which could hold users accountable through its reporting system. Otherwise, the concept — connecting people in the network via Webcam — is the same.
GoodCrush.com, meanwhile, has 14,000 users at about two dozen colleges, and Weinstein says he is in talks to expand to other campuses by partnering with student governments to bring the service there.
While online dating and anonymous message boards might strike some traditionalists as unromantic, the emerging popularity of such sites could be healthy sign, says Kathleen Bogle, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University.
Bogle, the author of the book Hooking Up, an examination of sex and relationships on modern college campuses, says the demand for online outlets where students can post anonymous gambits or search for a compatible partner may represent a revolt against the current protocol for coupling on college campuses: namely, getting drunk, finding a warm body at a party, and attempting to build a relationship (or not) from there.
The whole idea of missed connections, Bogle says, flies in the face of the pervasive collegiate attitude that sexual partners are more or less interchangeable. “It’s a much more romantic idea — I noticed and need to track down that specific person.” Ditto the protocol established by online dating sites, which seek to pair up couples that are compatible intellectually and emotionally, not just physically.
“The idea that you’re meeting someone when you’re sober, you’re thinking about them, looking for them on the Internet, it already takes a lot more effort than just participating in the hookup culture,” says Bogle.