College freshmen size up roomies with Facebook

Posted: August 19, 2007

I remember unpacking my belongings on the first day of my freshman year of college, waiting with my stomach in knots for my roommate's arrival.

I wondered what she would look like, whether she would be nice, whether we'd have the same interests, whether it would bother her that I'm more than a tad messy.

Lara Seligman, 18, has no idea what I'm talking about. The 18-year-old from Wynnewood, an incoming freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, has known for two months who her roommate will be - a "really fun, really nice" girl from Vienna, Va., who has lots of friends, parties occasionally, does crew, is into history, and has a great memory.

And how does Seligman know all this? Largely through Facebook, which has allowed students to make dozens of "friends" they may never meet.

Facebook.com, a favorite among high school and college students, is a social network that allows users to create profiles with pictures and short lists of their interests. Users first join a main network, usually based around their school. They "friend" others, and then write e-mail-like messages and post comments on one another's "wall," a space in each user's profile that allows for brief messages visible only to one's friends.

Users can see all the basic profiles in their main network, but only the profiles of friends in other networks. Seligman, for example, has joined the Penn network, which allows her to see the profiles of most students at the university, but she has friended individual students at a variety of other schools as well.

Such immediate access to personal information means that Facebook has fast become the way many college freshmen meet and size up their new roommates the summer before college starts. "I friended her and sent her a message like, 'Hey, you're my roommate,' " Seligman recalls. "And then we started talking about what we do, how we got interested in Penn, our decision to go to the gym every day next year because we are not gaining the freshman 15."

In fact, Seligman and her roommate hit it off so well that her roommate recently came to visit, allowing the two to go shopping together for lamps and laptops and to check out their future home.

Hanna von Schlegell, 19, of Chestnut Hill, found Facebook equally useful in getting to know her two roommates before her freshman year. Though von Schlegell, now a sophomore at Grinnell College, used the site "primarily to plan out practical things, like who was going to get the fridge," she admits, "it was pretty nice to have some background idea of what they were going to be like once I got to school, so it wasn't such a complete shock discovering who I was going to be spending my time with."

Von Schlegell acknowledges that there is a downside to friending before meeting in person. "It tends to be one aspect of a person's personality which is projected through Facebook," she says. "If you looked at your future roommate and she was this apparent hard partyer and her interests were beer and drinking, and then you met her and she was actually a great person who also happened to party, I mean, that illustrates the limits of Facebook."

It's also exactly what made Lehigh University sophomore Kristy Caltabiano worry in the months before her freshman year. "I looked at my roommate's Facebook profile once, just to see what she was like," says the 19-year-old from Wayne. "It seemed like she had a lot of parties and stuff at her house, and at that point, I kind of decided that we really weren't that much alike."

Rachel deBerardinis, 19, of Roxborough, also felt a disconnect when she looked at her future roommate's profile. "I had a feeling that we weren't going to be best friends, because we didn't seem to like the same stuff," says the University of Pennsylvania sophomore. "It actually made me more nervous to meet her."

Roommate friending is only one aspect of pre-college Facebook activities. Almost as prevalent is the "random friending" epidemic that spreads among incoming college freshmen, in which someone may friend hundreds of people he or she has never met, simply because they are part of the same college class.

"I think it's part of leaving home and trying to make a new place for yourself in the world," suggests von Schlegell, who sheepishly admits to having been random friends with her current boyfriend before meeting him in person. "Some people express that through Facebook, by reaching out and trying to become friends, or at least acquaintances, with other people who are going to be around them."

Caltabiano and deBerardinis both disliked the overtures. "It's not like they friended me, wrote on my wall, and we had a conversation," deBerardinis explains. "It was like, 'We're friends on Facebook.' At college, it was weird walking around and seeing all these people that I knew on Facebook, and not actually knowing them."

Even Allison Hawkins, a Philadelphia resident and junior at Adelphi University, who entered college relatively unfamiliar with Facebook and never even glanced at her roommate's profile, noticed the random friending surge. She admits, "I friended people who went to my school who I didn't know very well. Now, if I don't know them, I don't friend them."

It's a sentiment that would make her mother, Aminta Hawkins Breaux, dean of students at Philadelphia's University of the Sciences, extremely happy. For safety's sake, Breaux encourages students not to friend those they don't know personally, however innocuous the gesture may seem.

And while she supports roommates getting to know one another over Facebook, Breaux warns against cases in which students "decide to change roommates before they even lay eyes on them. We're trying to get people to know others and not close off their opportunities too soon."

Troy Majnerick, coordinator of New Student Orientation and Academic Programs at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. "You could say, 'Oh, someone doesn't like music that I like or doesn't like to stay up late,' but you never know," he says.

"You come to college and you can't believe that you really cared about this in the middle of July."

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