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Why go to your reunion? Facebook-stalking is so much simpler

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Zach Urbina, 28, sits on his bed with his laptop at his apartment in Queens, N.Y.; he will not be attending his high school reunion. (Photo by Sana Manzoor for CNS)

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Zach Urbina, 28, sits on his bed with his laptop at his apartment in Queens, N.Y.; he will not be attending his high school reunion. (Photo by Sana Manzoor for CNS)

For years, Danielle Hunt had looked forward to her high school reunion. As a member of the school’s choir and manager of its football team, Hunt had a long list of people she hoped to reconnect with at her 10-year reunion in 2008, in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Then came Facebook. When Hunt, 28, a sign-language interpreter now living in Washington, D.C., joined the group King High School Class of 1998 Reunion: Reuniting Mustangs the World Over, she eagerly began “stalking” former classmates. But while sending a friend request, or “friending,” a few choir buddies she’d long been out of touch with, she began to wonder whether attending the reunion was really necessary.

“The people that I was curious about, I could just check if ‘Oh, they’re married with three kids’ or ‘Oh, they’re living in some strange country,’” Hunt says. “I always said I’d go to my 10-year and show off a little bit. But if people are interested in me, they can just look me up and it’s right there.”

Such is life in the era of social networking. Facebook users no longer have to wait for the ritual gathering to find out if the former head cheerleader is now a frumpy mom with six kids or if the nerdy boy who used to glue his hands together is dating a Brazilian lingerie model. This new wave of virtually networked networkers can check a friend or foe’s life status with a simple click. With so much of the mystery taken away, how will social networks affect high school reunions?

“I think Facebook has defeated the whole purpose of a formal reunion,” says Zach Urbina, 28, who will not be attending his Class of ’99 reunion in Westlake Village, Calif. The photographer, a recent transplant to New York City, now keeps in touch with his close high school friends via Facebook—and doesn’t see the point in a reunion, with its somewhat forced setting.

“There’s kind of this feeling to show off and prove where you are at a reunion,” says the admittedly competitive Urbina. “With Facebook, it speaks for itself. I don’t need to be there in person.”

Facebook launched into the online-social-networking scene in 2004, preceded by MySpace in 2003 and Friendster in 2002. Now with 175 million active users worldwide, Facebook has become ubiquitous among 20-somethings—which may not be helping party planners organize reunions.

“In the past 10 years there’s been a downturn in reunions,” says Margaret Perugini, head of Andy Mirkovich Productions, an event-planning company based outside Seattle that used to set up many more reunions. While she can’t actually peg a potential decline to the Facebook phenomenon, Perugini does believe people aren’t making the time to meet in person anymore. “Society has become such a constant motion,” she says. “It used to be an outing to go to a reunion, because you didn’t have as much going on.” Whether or not Facebook is making the reunion unnecessary, it is undeniably changing the process.

“Facebook allows us to know what to expect,” says Ana Martínez Alemán, associate professor of education at Boston College and author of “Online Social Networking on Campus: Understanding What Matters in Student Culture.” “It’s a classic information-getting kind of psychology that prepares us for a social setting.” In other words, it provides a reunion cheat sheet.

Greg Atwan, author of “The Facebook Book,” a satiric guide to understanding the social-networking service, thinks the incomplete hints people provide in their Facebook profiles may actually heighten their classmates’ curiosity and desire to attend. “People are really good at personal PR on Facebook,” Atwan says. “It’s like a stockholder reading a business’s juicy press release. You’re interested, but you’re still going to want to poke around the company and see for yourself.”

In just this past reunion season, groups have connected through social networks more than ever, says Mary Claire Thompson, production coordinator at Reunions With Class, also based outside Seattle. She doesn’t know whether these connections have persuaded more—or fewer—people to attend their reunions, but she’s found they’ve helped make initial contact easier. People can start groups, reach out to friends already in the network and invite others who are not.

One of these Facebook-savvy organizers is Brad Freitas, 27, of Sterling, Va. He created a group in advance of the June reunion of the Potomac Falls High School class of 1999. Its description reads:

“ME THEN: A captain of wrestling and football teams. Prom King. Morning Announcements Producer/Anchor. 3% Body Fat.

ME NOW: I just moved out of my parents’ house last year. I’ve gained almost 40 lbs. My hairline is receding at a rapid rate. I am just NOW finishing up my 4 year college degree (It took me 9 years). I am still working in restaurants.

If I can be excited about a high school reunion, anyone can.”

Freitas created the group, now with 104 members (over two-thirds of his class), a few months ago not just to aggregate his classmates, but also to mitigate the fears people might have about how they’ll be judged at the reunion. “I have no problem being the least successful, to make people more comfortable,” says Freitas. “I hope people see my pictures and think, ‘Brad seems to be in good spirits even though he’s not doing well.’”

Of course, creating a Facebook group doesn’t necessarily mean more people will show up or—as was the case for Hunt—that the reunion will even happen. After her initial enthusiasm, Hunt opted out of flying back to Texas to attend the event. It turns out she didn’t miss a thing, because the reunion was canceled at the last minute. Timing may have been an issue, Hunt says, because the reunion committee chose the rather inconvenient Thanksgiving weekend. But she also thinks Facebook may have contributed by disenchanting those who had already spent months perusing their classmates’ profiles.

Five of Hunt’s classmates had already bought plane tickets to Corpus Christi, so they decided to hold their own impromptu reunion. “They all went to a bar and took pictures,” Hunt says. “Then they posted them on Facebook.”

E-mail: lab2184@columbia.edu