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Anita Creamer, McClatchy Newspapers, Published June 27 2012

Facebook cuts reunion numbers: Online community enough for some

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – For the 50th reunion of the Sacramento High School class of 1962, organizer Tricia Brown had big plans: cocktail hour followed by a buffet in a Woodlake Hotel Sacramento ballroom decorated in purple and white, the school colors – a glittery and festive occasion.

“I see the reunion as a walk down memory lane,” said Brown, 67, a retired elementary teacher who lives in east Sacramento. “It’s fun to see people who knew you then.”

She has a Facebook account, which she uses mainly to keep up with relatives out of state – but she can’t imagine why anyone would prefer seeing classmates online instead of in person at a reunion. Frankly, the idea bewilders her.

“You wouldn’t go to the reunion because of that?” she said.

That’s exactly the fear of people planning high school reunions: In an age of soaring social media use, when people can reconnect with long-lost and perhaps faraway classmates through Facebook and other sites, has the time-honored tradition of the reunion seen better days?

Experts say that attendance at the 10-year high school reunion has dropped in recent years. In general, a good reunion attendance is 25 percent of the graduating class, said National Association of Reunion Managers President Cyndi Clamp. Now, in her own St. Louis-based business, Varsity Reunions, the average number of attendees has dropped below 20 percent.

Even for people in the reunion business, it’s hard to figure out why this is happening, and whether Facebook or the economy is to blame. Yet reunion planners say young alumni simply don’t seem to feel the urgency of catching up in person when they’ve already caught up plenty online.

There is no question that Facebook’s influence continues to grow. The site reaches 72 percent of all Americans on the Internet, according to the blog Digitalbuzz. At the end of March, it had

526 million active daily users around the globe, double the number two years earlier.

In some ways, Facebook has created more buzz about reunions. Alumni form online groups for the purpose of planning and communicating ahead of time, and also keep in touch afterward. Whether this planning actually causes more people to show up is an open question.

“If you don’t have a real community of people who feel connected anyhow, the best social media won’t channel them to the reunion,” said Andrew Shaindlin, assistant vice president for alumni relations at Carnegie Mellon University and author of the AlumniFutures blog.

Shari Sigl, 43, said she’s seen evidence of the Facebook effect among her classmates. Sigl is helping organize the Foothill High School class of 1987 reunion in August.

“Because of Facebook, I see people interested in the reunion now who haven’t been before,” Sigl said.

“I’m not sure that makes them want to come to the reunion,” she added. “People are already in touch. Why pay money for it?”

That’s the crux of the issue, not to mention the source of debate among event planners.

Some, like Clamp, think that introverts, party poopers and people with unhappy memories of high school are using Facebook as an excuse to avoid attending their reunions.