“Poking”–a new 21st-century form of the childish practice perfected by generations of bickering siblings–is quickly becoming the latest buzzword on college campuses. More than 1 million current and former students from coast to coast reportedly are swept up in the digital phenomenon created by thefacebook.com, an online user’s circle that is part popularity contest, part social encyclopedia.

Created by a group of friends and former roommates at Harvard University last February, thefacebook.com gives students at participating universities an opportunity to cultivate new relationships via the web, weigh in on the latest gossip across campus, and keep track of friends through a visual depiction of their personal social network. For participating schools, the site provides an instant “virtual network” connecting past and current students.

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  • Chris Hughes, co-founder of thefacebook.com, said the goal was to develop a site where students could mingle across campus–or across the globe. Originally, Hughes said, the idea was kicked around only half-seriously through the course of several late-night dorm room conversations. No one really expected the concept would catch on beyond Harvard, he said. But today, students at more than 335 schools nationwide reportedly use the service.

    Phil Boland, a junior psychology and criminology major at the University of Maryland at College Park, said he spends an average of an hour per day–and sometimes longer–upgrading his own facebook with information about friends, as well as personal stories he includes as part of his online profile.

    When it comes to procrastinating–a skill Boland admits he excels at–there is no better way to waste time than digging up dirt on your friends over the internet, he said.

    “It’s … basically a complete distraction when I’m trying to do my homework,” joked Boland.

    Maybe. But that hasn’t stopped college students and several recent graduates from turning out for the service in droves.

    “It’s a good way to keep in touch with people,” said Cameron Chandler, a 2004 University of Virginia graduate who signed up for thefacebook.com before leaving the school. Though she uses the service sparingly, Chandler said, she enjoys reading peoples’ profiles and keeping track of what her friends are doing with their lives.

    That’s really what the site is all about, added Hughes–creating “a place in cyberspace where people [are] able to document the friendships they have in real life.”

    Students and alumni at participating universities can use the site for a variety of purposes. “It’s sort of like a social encyclopedia to share and trade information,” Hughes explained. Besides uploading and maintaining their own personal profiles, including contact information, extracurricular interests, and other social tidbits, the service lets students search across campuses for users who share similar interests and invite them to take part in special-interest groups designed to attract people with similar tastes.

    At the University of Maryland, Boland and his online chums have taken to creating such offbeat groups as “The Boy Meets World Fan Club” and “Catholics for Religious Diversity,” among others.

    For many college students, thefacebook.com also is used as a tool to break the ice between strangers. Can’t remember the name of that cute girl you saw in biology class? If you’re lucky, you can find her profile using thefacebook’s class list feature, which keeps track of members’ class schedules.

    Unlike other online communication venues, such as Microsoft’s Instant Messenger service and ICQ Inc.’s popular SMS service, which enable users to send personal messages from their home computers directly to their friends’ cell phones, Hughes says thefacebook.com is more about documenting relationships in cyberspace than it is about instant communication.

    “It’s really nice to know that you can find your friends and keep track of them,” Hughes said of the service.

    Among one of thefacebook’s most entertaining features is its friends’ list. As students meet one another online using the site, they have the option of inviting each new acquaintance to join their list. Then, as their online roster of friends continues to grow, other facebookers can compare lists, using the feature as a means to gauge their popularity on campus.

    Last semester, Boland–who plays rugby at Maryland–said he and one of his teammates decided to go head-to-head to see who could get the most friends using thefacebook.com. Boland thought he did pretty well, adding 167 names to his list, but his efforts were no match for his teammate, who snagged 253 new friends.

    “He’s got the advantage, though,” added Boland. “He’s younger, so he knows a lot more people.”

    The online fraternity created by thefacebook.com won’t likely get you VIP access to the hottest parties in town, noted Boland, but it will make sure people on campus know who you are.

    “The only reason I do it, really, is to up my personal legends at the school,” boasted Boland, who configures his thefacebook.com to send updates and messages directly to his cellular phone.

    And then, of course, there’s the poking thing.

    “I’m not really sure what it’s for,” said Boland, referring to the quirky feature that notifies users when they have been “poked” by friends. “I pretty much just do it late at night when I want to get a girl’s attention … though it doesn’t work that often,” he said, laughing.

    Others are still trying to figure it out.

    “I’ve never been poked,” admitted Chandler, sheepishly, “but I’ve been wondering what it is all about.”

    Links:

    TheFaceBook.com
    http://www.thefacebook.com