For today’s college students, logging on to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace is a nearly universal habit. Internet entrepreneur Alex Salzman ’07 compares it to rock ’n’ roll — a cultural phenomenon that kids loved before parents could understand it. “It is a generational thing, but I think it’s spreading,” Salzman said. “You get drawn in.”
At least Salzman hopes you do. His company, Rethos.com, is billed as “MySpace with a conscience,” with channels that encourage individuals, nonprofit groups, and companies to discuss issues that they care about, from the environment to social justice.
Two other startups with Princeton ties are applying social networking to the college admissions world. Zinch.com, launched by Mick Hagen ’09 and two business partners in March 2007, aims to give colleges a chance to scan the talents of individual students, and Admish.com, founded by Breanden Beneschott ’09, Sandy Gibson ’06, and recent McGill Univer-sity graduate Brad Milne, hopes to give students the tools they need to decide which school is right for them. Admish went online for pilot users in September and was set to expand this year.
Each company hopes to connect people who otherwise might not find each other. Nonprofit groups, Salzman said, often have strong connections with local supporters, but they have difficulty meeting up with like-minded groups in other areas. A site like Rethos could help to widen their circle of influence.
For college admission officers, social networking may have a narrower focus. Hagen explained that colleges “have specific types of students they are looking for,” but when they reach out to students, the mailing lists often are based on test scores and little else. With Zinch, an admission officer can search more than 200,000 student profiles for specific interests or talents and reach out to the most promising individuals.
Admish takes a broader view of the admission process, posting profiles not only for admission officers, high school students, and guidance counselors, but also for parents, who can form their own networks. The site also aims to reduce the “inefficiencies” of applying to college, Beneschott said, providing tools that help students to decide where to apply. For example, Admish users can compare schools using a “make your own rankings” page, which allows the user to set his or her own ranking criteria.
Building a critical mass is key in social networking, so all three sites allow users to create profiles for free. The companies draw income from sponsors and advertisers, or in Zinch’s case, from small subscription fees paid by the more than 380 colleges that subscribe to the site.
To get their companies off the ground, Princeton’s young social-networking entrepreneurs have spent long days attracting investors and building the technical tools that power their Web sites, often setting aside their academic work. Salzman finished his classes last spring but has not made much progress on his senior thesis (planned topic: corporate responsibility and its relation to media). Beneschott completed just one year at Princeton before taking leave to work on Admish, which is based in Princeton. And Hagen has been on leave for a year and a half, working from his home in Utah. All three plan to complete their degrees.
“I know the importance of education,” Hagen said in an e-mail. “It’s what I preach everyday with Zinch. ... I’ll definitely be back. But for now, I’m following my dreams.”