How Facebook Is Affecting School Reunions

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Who got fat, who got hot, and is that old crush of mine still single? Whatever happened to that weird kid with the hair? Wait, am I the one who got fat?

Such are the essential questions at the core of every high school and college reunion. For decades, the routine has remained the same: a bunch of old classmates get together and catch up, settle (or renew) grievances and swap glory-days stories. Yet the ability to locate former classmates through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and, well, the Internet itself, has alumni organizations and other such groups wondering if the sun is setting on the traditionally organized reunion.

Take Kim Brinegar, who in 1998 helped organize the 10-year reunion for her class at Maryland's Arundel High School. "Back then, the Internet wasn't really that reliable for finding people," she says. "I had to rely on word of mouth, advertising in the paper and sending things to people's parents." For the 20-year reunion, however, she had a new tool: Facebook. Through the site, Brinegar was able to get in touch with tons of people she couldn't track down last time around, including an exchange student from Italy who flew across the Atlantic for the reunion last November.

Rather than turn people off from wanting to attend ("Well, smokin' hot Sally looks just awful now — no need for me to go"), Facebook only increased the excitement for the 20th reunion at Massachusetts' Sharon High School, says Holly Goshin, who helped plan the event. "It's enticing. It's like a little preview, seeing everyone's life online. And whether you're happy that someone is not doing as well as you or you're happy that they look amazing, you get to see it all in person. Then you can move on with your life."

But such self-organization is hurting businesses devoted to reunions, says Jonathan Miller, co-owner of Reunited Inc., a 20-year-old company that has helped plan more than 1,000 high school reunions. "It's definitely affected our business," Miller says. "Classes can now easily say to me, 'Jonathan, we have 150 people in our Facebook group right now, and we really don't need your services.' "

College-alumni associations are dealing with the same issues. "Students now are all connected through Facebook and MySpace and other sites, so they leave college with their own network completely intact," says Deborah Dietzler, executive director of alumni relations at the University of Georgia. "This is not like 20 years ago, where, if you wanted to get in touch with someone, you kind of needed to call the alumni office."

On a personal level, Dietzler is a good example of how Facebook can hurt reunion attendance. "There was a Facebook page for my 20-year college reunion, which took place this May," she says. "I looked at it a couple of times and it didn't seem like anyone I knew would be there, so I lost interest."

Still, the idea that social-networking sites might kill reunions is a faulty one, because that would essentially mean killing nostalgia itself. While Facebook allows you to easily discover that your old pal Jack now has twins, it does not allow you to knock back a drink with Jack at your old campus dive (unless it's a virtual drink, and where's the fun in that?). What the Internet is doing is shifting power from schools to former students. There's less need for snail-mail brochures and impersonal e-mails from alumni offices and businesses like Reunited Inc. when any former student can just form a reunion group on Facebook.

Marc Dizon was a class officer for Virginia's West Springfield High class of 1999. Nine or so years later, dozens of former classmates began to e-mail him via Facebook to ask if a reunion was going to happen. The interest was there. "I don't think reunions are redundant on account of social media," he says. "You're always going to want to see people face to face. And those who don't go are probably those who wouldn't have gone even if there was no Facebook."

Mike Huynh, who helped organize a reunion for his 1998 Lowell High School class in San Francisco, says the gathering — which 214 out of about 600 class members attended — might not have happened if it weren't for Facebook. "It made it very cheap for us to connect quickly with classmates and get information out to them. It was also easy to get feedback on what dates students prefer and, afterwards, on how the event went. I think that five years from now, the popularity of Facebook is going to make it an even more effective way to get people together."

So reunions are probably here to stay, says Andrew Shaindlin, executive director of the Caltech Alumni Association and a blogger at Alumni Futures. But the real danger is that an end to reunions organized by alumni associations would make it more difficult for those associations to raise funds from former students. "It's going to affect donations," says Shaindlin. "We've lost our monopoly over the data on how to communicate with schoolmates. We need to step back and figure out how to remain relevant, because there may be some point three or five or seven years from now when we're going to hold a reunion and almost nobody is going to sign up." By then, however, alumni associations may have figured out how to tap donors via Facebook.