When did meeting real people become Facebook in the flesh?

A freshman orientation program called “Facebook in the Flesh” actually took place at NYU last year. A brochure explained: “Meeting new people face to face can be much more intimidating” than “online social networking.” This program “build[s] social networks in person.” Among the program’s inspirations was a Facebook group for NYU’s incoming freshmen that accrued 2,000 members before the first day of classes, an NYU administrator said. Though “Facebook in the Flesh” is gone for 2008, after paltry attendance, the program epitomizes a transformation of college life: not only in how we communicate with friends, but even how we make new ones.

Facebook profiles of Yale freshmen seem like those of longtime students. By August, most have dozens of Yale “friends,” or 100, or 500. Some list majors. Several have joined Facebook groups like “Yale Political Union” and “Yale College Democrats.” Many, when meeting this fall, will already have connected online. They may remember each other from profiles, or pictures or discussions in public “groups.” Orientation will be, de facto, Facebook in the flesh.

We know the benefit of this transformation: tools to “message” all your suitemates and decide who brings the couch, or to invite hundreds to a discussion, play or party. But we have yet to examine its problem: namely, that Facebook “friendships” are not real relationships even though they are beginning to take place of the real. The more we rely on “wall” posts and rosters of 500 “friends” as college life’s fulcrum, the more we forget that deeper interaction is possible.

Still, some admirably use Facebook itself to fight impersonality. The 106 members of the group “Yale 2012 CD Pals” exchanged mix CDs, by mail and at Bulldog Days. But even CD exchanges are “obviously not comparable” to meeting in person, co-creator Chloe Sarbib ’12 said.

Similarly at risk is serendipity. Online networking is all about order and measurements: reducing a whole person to a profile, with ordered lists of favorites; enabling “groups” that revolve around shared favorites; numbering your “friends” like a résumé statistic. The implication is that these favorites are a person’s core, these groups are hotbeds of future friends and one’s number of “friends” emanates status.

But these traits are not all a person is. A human soul is richer: a fusion of yearnings, anxieties, values, past memories, future hopes, present awareness of things not everyone notices. A bond among these qualities — which can be neither organized nor measured — is the stuff of true relationships. Spirit links people in uncanny ways. These have no online version.

Thirdly, we lose control over first impressions. We put things on Facebook that we never think everyone will see — even while aware that everyone could. The result is our generation’s addled culture of semi-privacy. We treat “profiles” like diaries, or common-room quote boards, but in fact (unless we use privacy settings) they are like T-shirts we wear in public.

Strangely, Facebook also enables more control over impressions. When feeling pressured to look better, or sound “cooler,” we can make it so on Facebook and, hiding behind profiles, evade the beautiful challenge of crafting self-confidence.

What links these trends? Technically, we communicate copiously, yet so seldom in ways that matter. Compared to when our parents (and even older siblings) were in college, we exchange more “messages.” But in so few do we truly connect.

The significance extends beyond college. Our habits now will be our instincts, and our generation’s habits will be societal norms when we are adults. If we do not notice the alarming differences between online networking and real interaction, we will let the latter disappear, unknowingly.

But if we do notice — if we hold fast to how we wish to interact, then use technology (or not use it) to serve that end — we will strike a remarkable balance. On Facebook, we will still plan mix-CD swaps and decide who brings the couch on move-in day. But we will live in the flesh.

Noah Lawrence is a senior in Saybrook College.