UK: Fitfinder just too distracting

When FitFinder was launched at University College London this year it took students by storm. Other universities clamoured to have their own version. It had five million student followers before the original version was shut down for 'distracting' students at examination time.

Initially FitFinder was a great site to access. It went live at UCL in the summer term. All the UCL students were in the middle of heavy revision for their end of year exams. We were trapped in the library and any form of distraction or excuse for procrastination was highly welcome.

I think it caught on because it's like sending each other notes in the library. But since you have your computer on you can send each other notes on the computer. It is natural to comment on people around you. People are interested in each other's lives.

In the library you would have it on in the background and check up on it from time to time to know what was happening. I don't miss it now because I'm not in the library.

Students would jokingly send descriptions of one another with horribly cheesy innuendos. For example: "hey boy wearing grey shirt, working by the clock, oh I would work him". The site became a virtual place to have a quiet laugh without disturbing anyone or provoking a tetchy librarian.

However, after a while it became apparent that some people weren't just using it for fun. People were watching and judging you. The site began to have a negative effect on students' revision.

We felt increasingly self-conscious and exposed. How were you supposed to react when you couldn't work out who could be sending a comment like: "Female, blonde hair, I risk a glance every now and again. Beautiful brown-eyed friend, please notice my glances"?

As the number of users rapidly increased, a different crowd began to use the site. Though most of the comments were still funny, an element of viciousness and, to some extent, bullying crept in.

Of course anyone could delete a comment they did not approve of, but that meant you would have to stay logged on to the site to protect yourself.

Many students felt the comments were incredibly objectifying. Some girls admitted they had made more effort with their appearance, spending more time on their makeup and clothes in case they were forgotten on FitFinder.

FitFinder was essentially a stalker's paradise and effectively transformed what you had believed to be your safe familiar library into the Big Brother House (a voyeuristic reality television show). Facebook has a barrier - you cannot see the person when you write about them but FitFinder did not have that barrier.

Will FitFinder become the next Facebook? Everyone gets into phases with different sites. I think Facebook will have its life and then die like [social networking site] Bebo did. I used to use Bebo when I was younger but I don't now. So FitFinder might also die.

It only has a certain amount of potential - a small market of only those people who use those areas such as a library. If the site were much bigger it would lose its novelty and it could become scary because it's quite stalkerish.

It is not very clear whether UCL shut down the site because of student complaints or because they felt a need to protect the university's reputation in some way. Whatever the motive or justification, many students were outraged that it was done in a very heavy-handed fashion.

Threatening to refuse to allow Rich Martell, the UCL student who founded the site, to graduate was highly inappropriate. Furthermore, the adverse publicity about this and the campaign to keep the site open radically increased the site's visitors and soured a relationship between students and the administration.

Ironically, without the university's intervention the site would not have had as many users and would most likely have died as a lot of our other favourite social networking sites have.

If the site is reopened, the UCL authorities will, ironically, be responsible for its success.

* Pippa Shaw is a first-year student at UCL