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The Warsaw Voice » Society » February 4, 2009
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Networking Site Takes Poland by Storm
February 4, 2009   
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Nasza-klasa is the most popular social networking site in Poland, enabling people to find classmates from every stage of their education: kindergarten to university, as well as scout groups, army units or various clubs. In the last Google Zeitgeist ranking, which lists the most widely used search terms in browsers, nasza-klasa, which translates as "our class" in English, was ranked seventh worldwide.

The website is unique among Polish internet undertakings: no other site has gained such a large number of users, currently over 11 million, in such a short space of time. Nasza-klasa was launched in 2006 by a group of students in Wrocław. Maciej Popowicz, a computer science student, was the main initiator along with fellow computer science students Michał Bartoszkiewicz and Paweł Olchawa and graphic designer Łukasz Adziński.

The idea behind nasza-klasa was not quite new as the creators based their portal on the American site classmates.com, which has however failed to have the same success as its Polish counterpart.

One year after the launch, Popowicz had already sold a 20-percent stake in the portal to the German investment fund European Founders (which owns part of the European branch of the eBay auction site). The sums involved were not made public, although it is speculated that it was in the millions of zlotys, making it one of the biggest transactions of its type in the Polish internet business. The whole website at the time was estimated to be worth zl.15 million.

Nasza-klasa works on the same principle as MySpace or Facebook: users can create lists of friends, send messages, add picture galleries and participate in forum discussions. The creation of a profile is all that is needed to start participating and look for classmates, teachers or schools. Nasza-klasa is even credited with starting a trend for class and graduate reunions.

Sociologists and psychologists have taken an interest in the causes of the resounding success of nasza-klasa.

Society in miniature
It is easy to recognize that the basic principal at work behind the portal is one of the basic human needs: belonging to something. The virtual class is an ersatz society, enabling users to experience satisfying and positive feedback. Hence the posting of pictures from exotic vacations, of luxury cars and houses, or in the case of a lack of the above, family. The user then waits for a chorus of approval, praise or even jealousy. It is also easier to confide in old friends, whom we seem to know well despite a lapse of even 30 years, or complain about the life's vicissitudes and receive a reply saying: "I understand you" or "I feel the same" or "Don't worry, it'll get better."

Another reason is nostalgia, which creates a longing for how we were, what we could do and how much easier life was without a family and a mortgage. There is good reason why the most active users are in the 30-50 age group.

Psychologists also point out that the contacts developed on nasza-klasa are less costly and demanding than ones in real life. A user can tailor their online profile, filtering out all the little inadequacies. Real life meetings, if they do happen, tend to be sporadic and so are kept on a safe and shallow level.

In the beginning, the website was mainly a place to dust off one's memories and just another interactive form of fun. With the advent of an avalanche of new users (up to 3 million in a single month) phenomena typical of cyberspace began to appear. First it was technical problems due to server-load. These were solved with the coming on-board of new investors (European Founders). Last year, the Inspector General for Personal Data Protection (GIODO) took an interest in the portal due to reports of user data not being sufficiently safeguarded and liable to being used in breach of the law. After a GIODO audit, certain enhancements were made including the use of SSL (Secure Sockets Layer, an industry standard encryption protocol) for server connections and options to let users hide certain data.

The creation of profiles on nasza-klasa at one point became all the rage and led to unintended consequences. It transpired that police officers were very active in seeking out their old acquaintances, going so far as to post the details of all the specialized courses they had finished in police academies. Group photographs of graduates also started to appear, allowing for precise identification, which in some cases could have led to undercover police officers having their cover blown, since every professional group was well represented on nasza-klasa, including career criminals.

Security fears
The case which received the most media attention involved members of Polish military intelligence serving in Afghanistan, a few of whom posted pictures from sensitive operations, including names and other data, apparently in the belief that nasza-klasa was safe from terrorists. Officers received reprimands and the pictures were removed.

Blackmail also began to appear. A certain user was pestered for financial help by a mentally-unstable former classmate, a judge was threatened by a man she had previously sent to jail. Meanwhile, there were numerous and dramatic marriage breakups after an old school romance had been reignited.

Nasza-klasa is a phenomenon on the border between sociology and culture. The motivations of people willing to post intimate details of their lives on the internet, while being protective of their privacy in everyday life, do not seem to yet be completely understood, even by experts in social interaction. Many companies have blocked access to the portal from their networks, as the productivity of their workers dropped in direct proportion to their efforts in finding old friends.

Magdalena Błaszczyk
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