This weekend the New York Times gave Facebook a long look. Brad Stone asked if Facebook was "growing up too fast." His article covered a wide range of the site's uses and users, detractors and fans alike. In Sunday's Bits blog, in a posting titled Who Needs a College Reunion? I've Got Facebook, Jenna Wortham skimmed lightly over the question of whether she should attend her five-year reunion at the University of Virginia. After all, she wrote,
I already know which of my former classmates spent their post-graduate years planting gardens in the Dominican Republic for the Peace Corps...I've seen photographs documenting medical missions to South Africa, vacations to Ecuador and endless albums of wedding receptions and gurgling babies.
The dozens of reader comments on the piece offered a counterbalance to Ms. Wortham's posting. Among other things, readers pointed out that:
- Most alumni skip the five year reunion because many grads haven't done very much in five years, compared with what they'll have accomplished when the 20th rolls around.
- Facebook may increase attendance at college and high school reunions because it makes it easier to spread the word, even to alumni who don't receive (or read) mailings from alma mater.
- The extension of Ms. Wortham's argument is "why bother making plans at all?" In other words, at what point does an activity pass "the Facebook test" and promise to be more interesting in person than online?
- Social sites help alumni relations by "keeping your emotional connection to campus going" whether you're near to campus or far away.
- There's an experiential gap between the classes that are (right now) three and five years out of college. The former have had Facebook all the way through their undergraduate experience; the latter had to adopt it after they graduated. How this plays out in attitudes toward campus and toward face-to-face interaction remains to be seen, but must be monitored by alumni and development professionals.
There are a few counter-arguments as well, tending to support Ms. Wortham:
One reader states that at the "selective, private university" where he attended grad school, the undergrad reunions "seem weirdly insular and self-congratulatory...a re-affirmation of their Ivy League exceptionalism." This sounds like a success to me, as an alumni director. If alumni don't think there's anything special about their relationship with alma mater (and each other), the institution will have a hard time convincing them they need to return.
Finally, one writer comments that he'd "rather reunite with my friends on my own terms. I don't need an institutional excuse." Another writes that if there are really a few "select individuals" you want to see in person, "you arrange it. Reunion stock is taking a nose dive."
Herein lies the big challenge for alumni associations. An alumni association executive once described inviting a graduating senior to join the official online alumni community. The student's reply: "I already have my network, and I'm taking it with me."
If students and alumni don't see the school playing a relevant role, or providing services unavailable elsewhere, then the association and the institution will have no choice but to fade into the background. That's why most of us are trying to make our voices heard through LinkedIn Groups and Facebook Groups and Pages.
And this strategy might work in the long run. But we should be working on a backup plan in the meantime, so we have an alternative that makes us visible, relevant and engaging to our alumni over time.
What do you think?
[Updated 30 March: Link to the UVaToday blog posting on the topic.]
A note of appreciation to Donald Ivanoff at Polytechnic Institute of NYU, who independently mentioned Alumni Futures in a comment on the NY Times blog.