Long before Facebook became the place your aunt went to share cute cat videos, post personal messages on your wall, and chat with her book group, it was a hub for college students to connect.
Circa 2004 and 2005, when Facebook was founded and spread from Harvard to other U.S. and international universities, it transformed the freshman year meet-and-greet: Awkward phone number exchanges were replaced with friending fellow students on the social network, an action that felt far easier than filling your cell phone's contact list with the first names of people you might never talk to again post-orientation.
Almost 15 years later, Instagram is taking a page from its parent company with a new feature that targets college students. CNBC first reported the tool, which is still in test-phase, last week, sharing a screenshot that shows students are prompted to join their college's in-app "community." Doing so allows students to connect with others at their school who have also opted in, and also adds their university name and year of graduation to their bios. Instagram Direct still works the same way: Any messages you receive from users who you don't follow will go into your pending inbox.
The test feature makes Instagram one of a growing number of tech companies honing in on college kids as a way to up their user counts and foster brand loyalty. Some of these efforts seem less useful for students than others.
Take Tinder's new Tinder U, which lets anyone enrolled in a university narrow their populated results to others with local, .edu email addresses. Do you really need to swipe right or left on people you already interact with in dining halls and at class? Maybe it could be useful for those looking to expand beyond their social circle at larger universities. But more than anything, Tinder U brings to mind the passive, ineffective flirting associated with poking someone on Facebook, back when that was still a thing people did.
Apple is taking a more practical approach to reaching college kids: The company is partnering with schools to let Apple Watch owners add their student ID to the watch, making it easy to swipe for entry to the cafeteria and library, without a plastic pass on hand.
As a social network, Instagram's student tool is more similar to that of Tinder's. Students already use Instagram in their own unique ways, posting polls to their Stories to get input on which classes to enroll in and status updates to their bios when they return to campus, but by creating sub-communities within the app, Instagram seeks to both localize and personalize the user experience. This could have its benefits, such as helping freshmen, especially those living off campus, connect more quickly with other students and get useful information about courses and professors. However, it could also lead to some social drawbacks.
College is one of the only times in your adult life when you are surrounded by an immediate pool of friends. You don't really need to follow each other's posts throughout the day, since you're seeing each other in person. What isn't clear, and will likely remain unknown until a larger number of people get access to and start using the college tool, is how it effects those in-person friendships: Does connecting to a college community online enhance those IRL relationships or distract from them, leading you to spend more time reading into the social politics of the party scene you're seeing onscreen than participating in the one that's happening offline?