I think it was sometime in late September when my roommate (Tom Kelly—he’ll come into play later) pointed out that one could make friends on the Integrated Course Engine. I was intrigued, and sent out a few furtive requests to some hallmates. Before I knew it I had twenty friends, then thirty, then forty. Many people told me that I was their only ICE friend, and I had more than anyone I knew. I had more than Tom, and we turned it into a friendly competition.
But even when the novelty wore off I requested more people; I was legitimately fascinated by the academic interests of the people I knew. More than any other tool, even conversation, ICE told me about the intellectual pursuits of my friends—the classes they took, the ones they wanted to take, the ones they were debating between.
I still have this curiosity, and remain entranced by the potential of ICE. But at some point my innocent endeavor was hijacked by the sultry scent of glory. I wanted to have a lot of ICE friends, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted to have the most ICE friends. I didn’t give it much thought, but in the back of my mind, as I reached fifty, as I surpassed sixty, I assumed this would be easy—that no one else would have nearly this many. Why would they? It’s a silly goal. But it felt good to think that, even at Princeton, I could be the best at something.
When the fall 2012 courses went up, I gleefully took to ICE, eager to work out a schedule for myself (and to spy on the choices of others). But all this joyful energy came crashing down with a simple text from Tom: “Will Harrel has more friends than you!” What?! How?! Why?! Whywould anyone have more than sixty-five friends? I frantically refreshed ICE, and there it was, plain as day, on the right hand side of the page: “A quick update on our ICE social network: Will Harrel ’13 is in the lead with the most number of friends!”
I’d never met Will, but I messaged him on Facebook, asking just how many friends it took to be in the lead. At the time, he had 71 friends. Tom and I requested him (and were accepted), knowing it would not help the friend differential but unable to resist. Through sheer force of will, I raised my total to eighty-four. Convinced that I had finally gained the title, I set up an interview with Harrel himself. Ostensibly, it was for this article. But in reality, I just wanted to see his face when he discovered his throne had been usurped.
DM: So, how long have you been collecting ICE friends?
WH: I started in my freshman year. ICE was originally a COS 333 project. Gyeong-Sik Choi [class of 2010] turned it into an app that everyone could use. The friend feature came the summer before sophomore year.
DM: Before we keep going, I want our readers to get to know you a little better. Let me ask a few random questions about you. To begin, what is your favorite rapper named after a popular but generic ice cream flavor?
WH: Vanilla Ice.
DM: What is your favorite song by him?
WH: “Ice, Ice Baby.”
DM: What is your favorite phase of matter for H2O to be in?
WH, more confidently: Ice.
(I’ll admit his answer shocked me. Given liquid water’s necessity for life, I thought that would be the easy answer. But apparently Will cares more about seeing schedules than existing.)
DM: Really, more than liquid?
WH: Ice is more versatile. It can be a drink or a course engine.
(At the time, I was impressed with his quick wit, but further reflection has shown that this response made no freaking sense. I decided to narrow in.)
DM: To the point, have you met all of your ICE friends outside of ICE?
WH: Yes. I consider ICE friends to be more of a close group than Facebook friends.
(This blatant lie provided me with an opening for my first strike.)
DM: Does the name Thomas Kelly mean anything to you?
WH: Yes, he friended me on ICE. I only friend request people that I know. I generally accept all requests,though, and I’ve gotten two or three people to request me that I didn’t know.
(Oh, so ever since his name went up in lights he’s been unable to fend off all of his fans.)
DM: What is the creepiest thing you’ve ever done using your knowledge from ICE?
WH: I am currently in Manna Assassins, and I’ve used it to find out what classes people were in. A lot of people come up to me and ask me to show them my friends’ schedules so they can assassinate them.
DM: Have you considered changing your schedule to confuse your assassin?
WH: I don’t want to disclose that until the end of the game. But my assassin is welcome to try and go to the classes that are on my ICE and see if I’m there.
(That’s all pretty creepy, but I’m not going to lie: I admire his dedication.)
DM: Did you know that ICE was going to put your name on the website?
WH: Yes. Gyeong-Sik was visiting Princeton for the week and courses had just come out. He was using my computer to update ICE, and I told him how many friends I had. We decided to check and see who had the most friends, and it was me.
DM: Was it ever a goal to have the most friends?
WH: It was not a goal, but I always liked to see people’s schedules.
(It was totally a goal.)
DM: Does it feel like a competition now that it says that you are “in the lead?” Is there a target on your back?
WH: No, not really. If this helps grow ICE’s social network and the number of friends people have, I think that would be great.
(He seemed pretty genuine here, but it was time to test him, to find out what song he’d sing from second place.)
DM: How many friends do you have currently?
WH: I just got over 100. I think 103.
(My stomach dropped. 103?! The guy’s in a whole different league! I really I thought I could do it; this was a surprise.)
DM: Wow, I am impressed. I’m at eighty-four and I thought that was impressive. How do you get so many friends?
WH: Well, I’ve been here for three years, and I’ve known a lot of friends, and some of my friends have graduated, so not all of the 103 are active students.
DM: If you could add one thing to ICE, what would it be?
WH: I can’t think of anything right now. I’ve talked to Gyeong-Sik a lot about this. He added the networking thing, and we changed colors about a year and a half ago. There are a few bugs that he is working on, with classes that start at weird times. I did suggest the different colors to him.
(I spent the above answer planning a last, desperate gamble. I would get what I came for.)
DM: I have a roommate with over one hundred friends now, too. I think he’s at 111. I’m sorry to tell you, Will, you’re no longer in the lead. If you could just walk me through your emotions right now—
WH: I think it’s fantastic to see ICE growing. Many things are more important in life than who has the most ICE friends. It’s a cool record to have, but there are dozens of things that I would rather have than the most number of ICE friends.
DM: Well, it turns out that I made that last part up; you’re still in the lead. Congrats.
The most painful part of that interview wasn’t discovering that he was in the lead. It was his reaction at the end; there was pain on his face, but more than anything he was sincere in his love of ICE. I had that once, but where had it gone? When had my appreciation for a genuinely useful tool turned into something so selfish? And for that matter, what had I hoped to accomplish with that interview? Did I see myself as some next-generation Stephen Colbert, poised to “nail” Harrel with tough questions and rig the game to my favor? Why couldn’t I just be happy for him?
It took some time, but today I am happy for Will. I still like having friends (I’m up to ninety), but it’s not the end of the world that I’m not the leader. Besides, isn’t that why I came to Princeton? In high school, it’s easy to be the best at something; the pool is smaller, the standards aren’t as high. But I came to Princeton so that I could fail. I came here so that people would be better than me, so that I’d always have a higher mark to strive for.
And maybe when I’m a junior I’ll have as many friends as Will Harrel does (I’m certainly on track), but that doesn’t mean anything now. The old me, the petty me, would have clung to the idea that Will was friends with graduates, that Will had an extra year to make friends. I would have concluded that even if Will was “ahead,” I was still “better” at it. But really, who gives a rat’s ass. Will Harrel is a stand-up fellow who happens to have a lot of ICE friends. I’m just a guy who also has a lot of ICE friends. It’s not always about being the best, and sometimes, it’s just about winning a game of Assassins.