The life a young adult is all about finding the next something. The next great TV series, the next hilarious party game, the next unsigned indie rock band.
So when advertisements for a college-only social networking site start spawning on corkboards and lampposts across campus, most students will think the same thing.
_The next Facebook?_
The question is obviously rhetorical. Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth has penetrated every orifice of American life. From building our social calendars to destroying our GPAs, Facebook is present—almost inescapable—in modern life. Ubiquitous “Facebook connect” buttons haunt even those without profiles. Another networking option is not going to sweep Zuckerberg’s influence away overnight.
Yet now seems as good a time as any to strike the Facebook monopoly. For the past few months, the world has watched Zuckerberg awkwardly juggle attacks from all sides. And David Fincher’s _The Social Network_ is sure to keep our young hoodie-clad billionaire in an unwanted spotlight. For the first time since its launch in 2004, Facebook appears vulnerable. So how does CollegeOnly plan to unseat our social media emperor?
The answer is disappointing, but realistic. The CollegeOnly team understands that its site must find its own niche. The _Nassau Weekly_ contacted the site’s creator, Josh Weinstein, to discover just what that niche is. Weinstein explained that he is hardly looking to replace Facebook. (The fact that you can become a CollegeOnly fan on Facebook proves it.)
“From a time perspective, we might be competing with Facebook—where you procrastinate or browse idly online—but ultimately we are looking to complement Facebook more than compete with it directly.”
I’m not convinced that CollegeOnly will ever be a serious contender for my free time’s affection. But I can’t speak for my peers, who collectively comprise the site’s target audience. Weinstein emphasizes that his project exclusively focuses on the college demographic.
“We are focusing on the intra-college connections more than Facebook, which is looking to improve all of your connections—parents, cousins alumni, etc.”
At its launch, Zuckerberg restricted his social network to classmates at Harvard University. This network gradually expanded to other American universities and eventually reached high schools. Today, anyone 13 or older can make a Facebook profile. Weinstein believes that this inevitable expansion has unfortunately deprived students of their own social network. CollegeOnly seeks to resurrect the college-exclusive community that existed in the early days of Facebook.
Although he is young, Weinstein is no stranger to the social media market. As a recent Princeton graduate, he has already tested two projects on this campus. These previous endeavors—GoodCrush and RandomDorm—jointly served as the basis for CollegeOnly.
“CollegeOnly is an evolution of the two,” noted Weinstein, “GoodCrush missed connections are still a feature in CollegeOnly and we’re looking to integrate some cool video chat functionality.”
Video chatting and anonymity make a lethal cocktail—both features have famously checkered pasts. Without identities, troublesome users can troll and spam Princeton’s wall without fear. And the follies of last year’s Chatroulette are all too familiar to anyone curious enough to venture onto the site.
Weinstein acknowledges the risks websites face when dealing with anonymity: “Anonymity can be good, but not when it is completely unrestricted.”
Thankfully, the CollegeOnly team believes it has found a way to keep the onslaught of troublesome posters and unwarranted genitals at bay.
“For me, Juicy Campus is the most instructive [example] for how to avoid issues that have come up with anonymity on sites in the past,” stated Weinstein. “Users will assuredly feel safe viewing the content on CollegeOnly because we will be moderating it and have a flagging system in place, too.”
Although Weinstein had thoroughly explained his mission, there was only so much I could learn from press releases and interviews. So for the sake of journalism, I made myself a profile.
In order to sign up, I needed to provide my college email. I was immediately skeptical. While this net may keep high school students off CollegeOnly, Princeton’s faculty members share the Princeton.edu mailing address. Weinstein assured the _Nassau Weekly_ that this would be no issue.
“Alums can’t register—that’s an easy filter. Currently, we display our users’ email addresses, so if you see firstname.lastname@example.org [Shirley M. Tilghman] under a profile, you will know what’s up.”
In addition to systemic barriers for non-student users, the CollegeOnly team will be regularly moderating to ensure that nothing slides between the cracks.
After syncing my campus email with the site, CollegeOnly prompted me to fill out some rudimentary profile information. This should all seem familiar to anyone remotely versed in the Internet, and CollegeOnly hardly deviates from the industry standards.
However, Weinstein’s design does carry some innovations. Being a college website, CollegeOnly provides listings for academic and residential information. This may include student groups, classes, majors, minors, hometowns, and campus addresses. Despite being a Princetonian, Weinstein kept Tigerspeak out of the profile. Our “certificates” are nowhere in sight.
CollegeOnly again explores new territory when dealing with sexual orientation. I was free to profess an interest in men, women, “everybody,” or the perplexing “nobody.” I’m unsure whether this final option is meant to appeal to celibates, sullen romantics, or genuine asexuals. I suppose it resonates with the American campus’ less-sexual denizens, although based on the website’s more than suggestive advertisement campaign, these types aren’t their ideal costumer.
With my profile finished, CollegeOnly directed me to its homepage. Again, the set-up was very familiar. If Facebook and Twitter’s child procreated with a Halloween store, the offspring would be Princeton’s CollegeOnly page.
The site’s rightmost column showcases recently shared photos. In theory, this is the safe haven, the place to record unfiltered debauchery. Apparently, Princeton’s users aren’t ready for that leap of faith. All of the visible photos would be perfectly appropriate in a family photo album.
This may change in time, but I’m still skeptical. I would rather be exposed to Facebook friends—whom I’ve at least been acquainted with—than to classmates I know nothing about. If my parents see an embarrassing photo of me, it might be awkward. But at least I’ve met my parents.
CollegeOnly’s newsfeed takes up the rest of its homepage. Once again, Weinstein’s design offers a couple innovations to a familiar blueprint.
I noticed immediately that CollegeOnly’s wall is a lot less cluttered. This came as a welcomed change. I personally hate how thorough Facebook’s newsfeed is. I really don’t care that John Doe likes “not being on fire” and 17 other pages. And I don’t want to overhear Suzy Q. telling Peggy Sue how little she remembers from the previous night.
Unfortunately, CollegeOnly’s wall is hardly an improvement. Weinstein has solved Zuckerberg’s problem by designing a wall so uninteresting that no one will be enticed to post. Those posts that do exist are largely anonymous spam. On Facebook, I often rummage through the debris to find a witty status or TED Talk link. I face no such temptation on CollegeOnly. Reading through Princeton’s short wall was more of a chore than a relaxing time-waster.
One can find three types of posts on the wall. The first and most common is the “campus pulse” post. Although given full freedom of subject matter, Princeton’s students have apparently only felt inspired to post shout-outs and misanthropic criticisms thus far.
The second type of posts, “events,” appears to be the most viable in the long term. Unlike pulse posts, they have been designed with a certain degree of specificity. However, the success of these posts will hinge on how they are used. Previous posts advertised events such as Dance vs. Disease and Collegians for the Cure. However, I was able to post “brushing my teeth” as an equally legitimate event without obstacle. The responsibility is left entirely in the student body’s hands.
Events posts are also disappointingly rare. While this may change in time, I feel like the current state of Princeton’s wall does not bode well for CollegeOnly. The excess of campus pulse drivel may repel the users who could most effectively use the site as it was designed.
I fear that event posts may be destined for failure. I suspect Weinstein included the option so that classmates could advertise parties and pre-games safely. But such events desire selectivity as much—if not more—than publicity. With Public Safety on the prowl, the last thing a party wants is a flock of randos descending on the dorm hall. As a result, the events wall only has three posts within its first month. Only two of these advertise actual events, both of which are USG sponsored and openly advertised around the school anyway. The success of CollegeOnly’s events wall will ultimately rely on how efficiently students choose to use it.
The third posting option is the “missed connection.” A relic of Weinstein’s GoodCrush project, the missed connection post caters to the Internet’s reasonably stalkerish user-base. Posts appear publicly on the Princeton wall, but any replies to a “missed connection” post will be directed to the OP’s mailbox.
I see some valor in these posts, if only because they help alleviate the Internet’s latent sexual frustration. I won’t be using the “missed connection” function any time soon, but I applaud Weinstein for recycling apparent successes from his previous projects.
Overall, Weinstein could be well on track to hitting his goal, but only because he’s set the bar so low. CollegeOnly separates itself enough from Facebook to be an independent time-sink, but its appeal will invariably depend on the content its users generate. The scenario isn’t unfamiliar. Nobody would read PrincetonFML or Texts From Last Night if they didn’t have a steady stream of contributors. Weinstein will need to successfully sell CollegeOnly to a large audience if he wants the project to stay afloat.
I’ll welcome CollegeOnly when its photos are shocking and its wall posts are interesting. Until then, I’m perfectly content with Facebook, even if my parents are, too.