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Social networking Web sites compete with class reunions

Ten years after graduating from Taylor High School in Katy, Texas, Tina Lee Naro learned some surprising things about her former classmates. One committed atheist became a Mormon. A tightly wound ”business school” type became a laid-back bartender at a Montana ski resort. And a formerly hirsute friend is now completely bald.

Naro, now a consultant in New York City, learned all these things not in person, but on the social networking site Facebook – enough that she now plans to skip her 10-year reunion this September.

”I already had all those reunion moments: ‘Really? You’re gay? You’re married? You joined the military??”’ she said. ”Actually going back to Katy holds a lot less appeal now.”

Sites like Facebook and MySpace are now competion for the class reunion – that time-honored tradition of dressing to kill, choking down rubbery chicken and gossiping about old classmates. Many far-flung graduates say the ease of exchanging pictures and memories online makes it hard to justify expensive trips home.

The idea resonated so deeply with Chris Farmer of Vancouver, B.C., that he created a Facebook group entitled ”Facebook Has Eliminated The Need For A High School Reunion.”

When he signed up for Facebook, Farmer was flooded with messages from high school classmates: jocks, nerds, popular kids, even people he was pretty sure he’d never spoken to before.

”It was overwhelming, this feeling of running into everyone I’d ever known,” he said.

Farmer quickly sorted out what he calls ”the good stuff” – which former party-girl now teaches Sunday school, who gained or lost 200 pounds, which high school sweethearts broke up spectacularly and which went on to get married and have kids. But after reconnecting, ”seeing people in real life seemed a little pointless,” Farmer said.

At first the 45 members of Farmer’s Facebook group – all classmates from Hapnot Collegiate High School in Flin Flon, Manitoba _ agreed with him. But then, almost disproving his point, the online discussions evolved into a decision to have an in-person reunion in ”the Flon” after all, complete with one member offering to bring ”fatty pics of Farmer” as a conversation piece.

Indeed, for every Facebooker reluctant to go off-line, it seems there are two who end up with an increased desire for face-to-face interaction – especially among younger grads, who are already spending tons of time online.

At Harvard, where the Web site Facebook began, the class of 2003 is using Facebook to help plan their five-year reunion in June, said Jennifer Halloran, assistant director for Classes and Reunions at Harvard’s Alumni Association.

”Their Facebook reunion group has 770 members, or about half of their graduating class,” she said. ”They’re using Facebook as a marketing tool and to get people excited to come back.”

Halloran has noticed attendance is way up at five- and 10-year reunions over the past few years, a jump in enthusiasm she attributes at least in part to social networking sites that make it easier to keep track of graduates and get the word out about reunions.

Chalmer Harper, 28, started a reunion group on Facebook for his 10-year reunion at Cleveland High School in Cleveland, Tenn. For Harper, now the program director of a contemporary Christian music radio station, Facebook helped him find out the basic status of long-lost friends, but he’s waiting for this November’s homecoming to connect on a deeper level.

”I’m a person-to-person guy,” Harper said. ”It’s fun to find out oh, this person moved here or does this now but for me, it’s still more important to see them and have a real conversation.”

That’s not the case for Naro, who’s already reconnected with her good friend Kelly Huang.

Friends aside, ”a lot of the people from my high school class, well, honestly, I’m afraid I’d have nothing more to say to them,” Naro said. ”It’s much safer to stay behind my laptop wall and send a message than be trapped making hours of chitchat over cocktails at a reunion.”

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