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Facebook helps, hinders high-school reunions

| Monday, Dec. 5, 2011

Paula Sokol and some classmates tried a few times to arrange a 30-year reunion this year for their Sacred Heart High School Class of 1981, yet their attempts fell through. On one planned date, only a handful of people showed up.

Sokol, 47, of Morningside said she felt disappointed by the lack of her classmates' enthusiasm for a reunion. She sensed that people's involvement on Facebook -- the popular social-networking site with more than 800 million active users -- dampened many people's interest because they already were in touch and caught up with classmates.

How, she thought, could an online connection replace seeing people in person?

"I want to see what you look like ... to sit down and actually talk," says Sokol. "It's being in the same room with somebody. ... It's a fun night to get together with people you were friends with 30 years ago."

Facebook has revolutionized the way we communicate -- and class reunions have changed because of it. Some people keep in close touch electronically with almost daily updates online, so they don't feel compelled to buy a ticket and travel across town -- or across the country -- to see former classmates. For others, enthusiasm for an event that's promoted among friends on Facebook can be the tipping point in making the decision to attend.

Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine, has heard both sentiments from her readers. She doesn't understand why someone would find Facebook to be a replacement for seeing people in person.

"You can't do hugs on Facebook," says Wagner, whose magazine is based in Milwaukee. "For people who use it as an excuse not to go, they were probably unlikely to go anyway."

Wagner has heard that Facebook reduces reunion attendance more with younger graduates for 10- and 15-year reunions. Older people, who spent a much longer time in the pre-Facebook era, seem more likely to approach reunions the old-fashioned way.

Some reunion organizers thank Facebook for helping them find classmates and plan their events.

Carrie Wise, a 1991 graduate of North Allegheny High School in McCandless, helped spearhead the 20-year reunion held in July. The two-day event, which featured an adults-only cocktail evening on Friday and a family picnic on Saturday, drew a little more than 100 people from a class of more than 500. Organizers found most of these people on Facebook, Wise says. The rest heard through word of mouth.

Wise, 38, didn't get the impression that people who didn't attend the reunion used Facebook as a substitute.

"The feedback that we got from those who didn't want to attend was that they were no longer locals and it wasn't convenient," says Wise, who now lives in the Harrisburg area.

Facebook buzzed with friending after the reunion, says Wise, who added more than 50 friends to her network.

Margie Tardivo, a 1976 graduate of Apollo-Ridge High School, says her 35-year reunion this summer at a classmate's farm would not have happened without Facebook. Of the 30 to 40 people who came, most had been in contact with each other on Facebook.

"Some couldn't be there for other reasons ... not because they got their fill on Facebook," says Tardivo, who lives in Washington Township, Westmoreland County. "Facebook seemed to bring us together."

Colleges and their alumni associations are facing some Facebook-related changes, too. At Seton Hill University in Greensburg, officials say the website's influence has been positive. Many graduating classes are forming Facebook pages to stay connected.

Facebook gives the alumni association an opportunity to enhance their traditional communication with graduates, says Louise Lydon, director of national alumni relations for Seton Hill.

"It becomes a mechanism by which we are complementing our efforts to get people to pay attention to what's going on at the university," she says. "It gives them additional reasons to come back. I absolutely feel like it has been a real advantage for us."

For high-school and other class reunions, the companies that traditionally worked as planners are facing uncertainty. A key role of reunion companies has been tracking down people -- but now, many classmates are doing that for free on Facebook.

Jonathan Miller -- owner of, a reunion company based in Evergreen, Colo. -- says Facebook has cost his 21-year-old business a lot of clients.

"People are saying they don't need a reunion company because we have Facebook," Miller says.

Miller is trying to reform his business and stay relevant through the changes by downgrading the company's involvement. He works as a resource and partner of the reunion committee and provides special touches like name tags with senior photos, a slide show or a class picture.

The future of the industry, and the class reunion itself, is uncertain, says Wagner of Reunions Magazine.

"Everything is going to be different. We just don't know what it's going to be," she says. "I think this is a very fluid situation, and we're learning how to deal with it."

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