Hub of the University: Searching for HarvardLife Online

On Wednesday April 1, 2009, the cool, blue color scheme of was tinted a more familiar shade of crimson. “That’s right, TuftsLife is now HarvardLife,” announced a banner the homepage, “With the main developers involved in TuftsLife transferring to Harvard, today we completed phase one of the transition to our new home. We are excited about the potential that our new Ivy League home brings to HarvardLife.”

A Tufts friend alerted me to the change, and we had a good laugh over the April Fool’s joke at both Tufts’ and Harvard’s expense. The developers did quite a thorough job with the “changeover,” replacing links to Tufts webmail with Harvard’s and adding Veritas crests everywhere. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get to snag a screenshot before April Fool’s ended. If anyone has one squirreled away, please do send it over to  zhang50 at!) But it also got me puzzling, why isn’t there a HarvardLife? Why don’t we have such a useful site for students? Can the developers transfer over to Harvard for real?

TuftsLife is so useful because it pulls together all the information you need for, well, life at Tufts: announcements, events calendar, news, dining hall menu, academic resources, bus tracker, textbook swap, carpool board, etc. The same information for Harvard, on the other hand, is spread through ten different websites and is terribly unnavigable. In my frustration, I’ve consolidated all these websites as icons on a toolbar but there are still times when I’m frantically clicking around finding the exact room request form I need to. TuftsLife, in contrast to the diffuse network of Harvard resources, exists as a kind of hub of student activity; for many students, it’s their homepage and the announcements page is always worth a perusal. TuftsLife is also an entirely student run enterprise.

So where is the heart of Harvard’s online community? To be fair, I should point out there is, a portal that, in spirit, shoots for the same goals, but its clunky interface and university-wide rather than undergraduate life focus makes it an underused resource among students. When I waxed poetic to a friend about the student initiative that led to TuftsLife, a friend promptly replied, “Facebook?” Oh right, Facebook. Well Facebook’s kind of a tricky to fit in here. For one, it’s become increasingly less Harvard-centric, college-centric, or even network-centric over the past few years, as network pages have been completely phased out. It is also a primarily social network that connects you with people you already know, or at least sort of know. TuftsLife, on the other hand, is a school-wide bulletin board for student group events, marketplace exchanges, and announcements.

At Harvard – in my own experience anyway – the first place you go if you want eyeballs reading is quite haphazard and crude: email. Whether it’s about the German table you’re organizing or the physics textbook you want to sell or the survey you need 50 people to take for your thesis, open email lists, mostly by undergraduate house but also various student groups, are the way to go. For what it’s worth, it is effective enough yet seems somewhat outdated. While there have been attempts to pull together event information, it has never reached a critical mass of users to become comprehensive, and the current events calendar is dominated by department seminars and varsity sports games, lacking a lively addition of student group events.

Computer Science 50, the introductory CS class at Harvard, has been breeding ground to many useful and amusing student projects over the years. A select few recent ones are available in an “apps store,” but I am waiting a little hopefully for an ambitious student to pull everything together into sometime like TuftsLife.

Aside from convenience, such a hub will go a ways toward fostering a sense of cohesiveness in the student community. In the same way that the Harvard campus lacks a physical student center, it also lacks a digital one. It’s not everyone should be forced to participate, but that anyone who chooses to can. At a school of 6500 undergraduates, student life can incredibly fragmentary, and there is no central hub to find out what’s going on even if you want to. So, to improving HarvardLife!

Disagree? Sound off in the comments. I definitely don’t speak for every Harvard undergraduate and there is undoubtedly a range of experiences here. And if there’s some nifty service I’m missing out on, I’d be more than grateful to learn about it.

-Sarah Zhang