Who needs social events to meet people?

Computers freeze us in our swivel chairs, but at least now we can put our face in a book.

Thefacebook.com is a free-forum interactive online directory of college students that allows each user to create his or her own social network of “friends” at schools around the country.

It sounds suspiciously hokey, and it is. But it could be one of those rare testaments to the Internet actually bringing people closer together instead of the usual isolation that has accompanied each advance in the information age.

Thefacebook.com was developed a year ago by Harvard University sophomore Mark Zuckerberg, who says he wrote the code to program the Web site in a week. The site’s initial purpose was to provide a long-overdue way for Crimson residence halls to get to know one another, but soon thousands of students from all over campus had registered, and within weeks, it had swept Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Columbia University was double-clicking at their doorstep.

Like a symbiotic virus that benefits both the host and the parasite, the Web site has spread to more than 1.6 million students at 400 schools, with new members joining at a 15,000-per-day clip. All you have to do is fill out three fields with your name, password and valid school e-mail address and you’re in like Flynn, albeit a lot faster than even he could have done it.

Naturally, the snowball gets bigger as you usher it down the hill. Once you post your class schedule, you’re immediately linked to everyone in your courses, and once you invite them to be “friends” and they “confirm” it, you can then take a gander at all their friends.

“Nothing validates your social existence like the knowledge that someone else has approved you or is asking for your permission to list them as a friend,” rhapsodized a Stanford undergraduate. “It’s bonding and flattering at the same time.”

Your favorite people from high school (or lack thereof) and how they’ve changed are also just a hyperlink away. It shrinks so many degrees of separation; as if Kevin Bacon suddenly became the little yellow AOL Instant-Messenger guy.

Thefacebook takes a cue from online dating services and allows you to create a personal profile complete with photo, field of study and list upon list of interests such as hobbies, music tastes, favorite books and films, quotes, political views, clubs, ad nauseum. From there, you can create “groups” of the like-minded, exchange messages, write on their virtual “wall,” and who knows, meet up in a Turkish bathhouse and get your bacchanalia on!

What’s particularly interesting is how forthcoming students are with their contact information. Not just e-mail addresses but cell phone numbers, home addresses and even residence hall rooms are in full regalia on the Thefacebook database, something never seen with previous Internet personal sites such as Friendster.com and OkCupid.com.

What’s funny is how provincial the founders have remained despite their wildfire success, a marked contrast to the globe-trotting of most dot-com entrepreneurs. For much of the first year, Zuckerberg paid $85 a month to run the site from his laptop in his residence hall at Kirkland House at Harvard. And according to the site’s terms of use, a dispute with Thefacebook is legally under the jurisdiction of Zuckerberg’s home, Boston, and must be decided in its courts.

So, is this the death knell for our social skills, or is it a new beginning? Is this an exercise in cyberanthropology or high-tech vanity? Like the rest of technology, it might put our ass in a chair, but at least this one puts our face in the book.

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]