One of the things that many folks don’t realize about Facebook the social network is that it took its name from The Face Book, a physical sort of yearbook that many colleges and universities publish in order to help socialize incoming freshman classes.
Referring to it as “the Face Book” is something of a colloquialism and colleges would refer to it by some other, more official-sounding name like “The Freshman Record.” But students referred to it on campus as the Face Book, and everyone knew exactly what they were talking about.
I arrived at Washington & Lee University in the fall of 1990 as an emotionally immature freshman with almost no idea of what I wanted to do with my life, nor any idea of how college was going to help me figure out who I was going to be. The only thing I was sure of at the time was that Things Needed to Be Different when I got to college.
I had applied halfheartedly to a handful of schools with little reasoning behind my selection – University of Miami, Cornell, Lafayette, Drew, Wake Forest, William & Mary and Washington & Lee among them. Some were big public universities, some were small private colleges. If you saw the comprehensive list, you’d probably say to yourself that I had no idea what I wanted out of a school. And you’d be right. Without some well-placed nudging from my mom, I doubt I would have gone to college at all.
In fact, “emotionally immature” was a great way to sum up my attitude toward higher education up to that point. Instead of thinking about potential career paths and what I wanted to learn about, selecting a college boiled down to two things:
- Where did I think I would have the most fun?
- Where did I think I would have the best chance of effecting some sort of change in social status?
To understand #2, you have to understand my mindset at the time. Throughout elementary and middle school, I had been picked on more than any three kids I knew. Fistfights, having my locker broken into and trashed, being tripped in the hallways on my way to class, having my books knocked out of my hands onto the floor – these were all daily occurrences. I had seen school psychologists, private psychotherapists, participated in anti-bullying programs – you name it. And the only thing that saved me was something I realized in high school. In order to survive, you needed to project confidence.
High School, particularly the latter half, was transformative for me in ways that it wasn’t for many of the other kids I went to high school with. I’d hear constant laments about how kids my age couldn’t wait to graduate and get the heck out of my small town, but all I could think of at the time was how I was learning to rise up out of the lowest sliver of the high school pecking order and how I would avoid being relegated to that low station from the get-go at college.
Two key tactics in that regard were dialing up the confidence, and making good first impressions with my peers.
Which is why I was mortified when I got my copy of the Face Book.
I was in my parents’ basement, happily banging away on a computer game when my mom shouted down the stairs that Washington & Lee wanted some information on me, including my photo and a couple hobbies. Not really knowing what it was going to be used for, I hollered up that she should send them my senior yearbook picture, and use “music” as my hobby. She let me know she needed more than one hobby, and – seeing as how I was engaged in a game right that second – I told her “video games” would work.
So when the Face Book came out and I got my first look at some of my new classmates, there it was. Thomas Hespos. Wading River, NY. Hobbies: Music, Video Games.
It was racing through my mind. Everything about avoiding the lowest rung of the social ladder depended on my making a favorable first impression, and here it was in black and white – VIDEO GAMES.
Everybody else had these aspirational interests listed – the kind of thing you’d expect from real go-getters who came across like alphas and future leaders. Interests like “student government,” “community service” and “politics.” And here I was admitting I sat around and played video games all day. At best, it would be considered childish. Most likely, it was going to ensure my first impression wasn’t a good one.
I was right to be concerned. There were a couple other freshmen who had fouled up their Face Book submission. One guy had, instead of using a nice formal photo, decided to use a casual one of him dressed in one of those mesh football shirts. (They ended up calling this guy “Mesh Man” all throughout freshman year.)
At the time, video game launches weren’t these massive entertainment behemoths that competed with movies for entertainment dollars. If you played video games a lot, that certainly wasn’t a detail you’d want to share with anyone outside your friends who you gamed with. Certainly you wouldn’t share that with a prospective girlfriend or a classmate on whom you were trying to make a first good impression. Games weren’t something you advertised. I hadn’t even planned on taking a console or even a TV with me when I went to college.
I later found it this wasn’t such a big deal. In fact, a guy on my hall in my dorm even brought a Nintendo console a bit later in the year after we all settled in at school. By sophomore year, I had found that video games were even a staple of the stoner and slacker cultures within the fraternities that formed the backbone of social life at W&L. And by senior year, we were running full-on Super Tecmo Bowl and Sega NHL Hockey tournaments within my fraternity, and spending time getting good at fighting games like Street Fighter II on our Super Nintendo consoles.
But freshman year, being associated with video gaming before I even landed on campus was a deeply embarrassing thing for me. These days, I can pretend I was one of those forward-thinking people who knew at the time that video games were going to survive Generation X’s childhood and carry over into their adult lives, but I’d be lying. Back then, it felt like I had admitted to an elite group of smart kids I needed to impress that I still wet the bed or something like that.
Little did I know that video games were about to get a lot bigger.