Twelve years after the birth of Facebook in a Harvard dorm room, two students have launched a new social network for the Harvard campus.

Campfire, developed by statistics concentrator Karine Hsu, A.B. ’16, and computer science concentrator Jeffrey Zhao, A.B. ’16, provides an open, semi-anonymous discussion forum for Harvard students.

Zhao and Hsu developed the concept for Campfire after seeing their peers take to social media to discuss the results of the University’s sexual assault report, which was released this fall.

“Existing platforms don’t provide a really effective way to talk about issues that are relevant to a lot of students at Harvard,” said Zhao. “There’s not much deep discussion happening on YikYak, for example, and on Facebook, a lot of posts are now more commercial in nature.”

Hsu and Zhao brought their concept to Winter Xcelerate, developing the entire website during Harvard Ventures’ weeklong accelerator program in January. Working against the clock, Zhao called upon his  software development internship experience, while Hsu drew on the website design skills she had honed in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences course Computer Science 50 (CS50). They launched Campfire just in time for the start of spring term, and within two weeks had attracted more than 700 users.  

Campfire enables users to post discussions under different labels (classes, social, dating advice, etc.), comment, and “upvote” or “downvote” posts based on interest or usefulness, similar to Reddit. Users must have a Harvard College email address to create an account.

“Because you get to choose your own username, Campfire is semi-anonymous, which encourages people to be really frank and honest on the platform,”
 said Hsu.

Popular topics range from class selection advice to Valentine’s Day gift ideas. Students also use Campfire to provide more structured advice through “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) discussions. The most recent AMA featured four senior finance concentrators answering questions in real time about classes, internships, and careers. Hsu and Zhao are planning to host additional AMAs on topics of interest for underclassmen, such as housing day, and are also considering hosting discussions with faculty and alumni.

While they keep tabs on Campfire to delete offensive content, inappropriate posts are typically “downvoted” quickly by users, forming a unique a self-moderation system. For now, Zhao and Hsu are managing the site themselves, but may expand their team to help push out new features.

“This is definitely something we wish we had when we were underclassmen,” Zhao said. “As a senior, I really enjoy answering questions for underclassmen and helping them out. It is rewarding to be able to give something back to Harvard that helps build community on campus.”

Though Zhao and Hsu have been surprised and impressed by the rapid growth of the user base, they aren’t quite ready to put their social network in the same category as Facebook.

“Right now, we’re trying to be lean and test and validate as we go,” Hsu said. “But we’ve definitely seen some pretty good traction here. If we keep seeing this kind of growth, we will definitely think about expanding this to other schools, the same way Facebook did.”