Tim Walker: 'I know the precise style of underpants a college friend wore last Sunday'

The Couch Surfer
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America is in the grip of a Facebook epidemic, an aggressive virus with a deceptively unassuming name: "25 Random Things About Me". Its participants simply write a list of 25 "things, facts, habits or goals" in the social networking site's "Notes" application, then send it to 25 of their friends in the hope that they'll do the same. Yes, it's a chain letter.

This is how I discovered that one of my global acquaintances has developed an "unhealthy interest" in the Home and Garden network, and that another cried while reading books five and seven of the Harry Potter series. It's why I know the precise style and design of the underpants a college friend was wearing last Sunday, and that another of our classmates is largely unfamiliar with the music of the Rolling Stones. Her favourite colour, by the way, is blue.

The craze is so widespread that, according to Facebook, when the "25 things" wave first broke at the end of January, about five million notes were created by users in a week. Assuming, as the site's spokespeople do, that this surge was driven by the 25 things phenomenon, that's a potential 125 million facts – at least 100 million of which, I'd wager, were conspicuously unenlightening. The meme is momentous enough to have made the pages of Time magazine and The New York Times. None of my UK-based friends have inflicted the thing on me, but I can't help thinking that, as I write, a tsunami of banal information is heading our way.

The exercise seems designed to demonstrate how quirky and different we all are, yet it's striking just how many people are, like myself, predictably "terrible at small-talk" and/or "obsessed with Lost". There's a preponderance of travel-related olfactory observations: one person remembers the smell of Rome more than the sights. Another finds the scents of cinnamon and fir trees remind her of America. One just loves "the smell of October in Washington State". There's almost always a disclaimer about why they've finally succumbed to the trend, and why, of course, they never normally do this sort of thing.

I'd love to bang on about just how irritating this all is, and I certainly have no plans to write my own 25 things. Yet learning which trifling titbits people find interesting about themselves proves oddly compelling: "What does the fact that they think this boring thing is actually interesting say about them really?" Hmmmm. I was shocked in one instance by an unexpectedly candid bedroom confession. And I laughed at this: "15. My hypothetical 'price for putting out' always seems to be alarmingly lower than my friends'." (Thanks, Pat! I find it "difficult to keep friendships alive" too! Let's have lunch!)

But the truth is, I'm on Facebook and, if you've read this far, then you probably are, too. Sharing fundamentally trivial things about oneself has always been its appeal. So why should "25 things" be any less interesting than your friend's film and music tastes, or their album of blurry photos from last Friday night's work do?

Every time I switch on University Challenge this year, I find the team from the University of Manchester toying with some poor provincial opponents, like a cat calmly pulling the legs off a spider. In last Monday's semi-final they laid waste to Lincoln College, Oxford (345-30).

Manchester's fresh-faced captain Matthew Yeo – from Lichfield in Staffordshire, doing a PhD in "the history of the book" – seems to spend most of the time trying ever-so-hard not to appear smug, which must be difficult when you consistently batter your opponents by a margin of at least 200 points. Yeo's team also boasts a beardie fellow named Henry Pertinez – from Birmingham, doing a PhD in pharmacokinetics (nope, me neither) – whose intellectual gifts include the ability to identify complex hydrocarbons and, say, to spell out the titles of Led Zeppelin albums using elements from the periodic table.

It looks as if I've only been catching one half of the draw, because tonight's semi-final (the winners of which will meet Manchester in next week's final) is a Corpus Christi/St John's Oxbridge derby. Both of those teams have formidable records to match the Mancs, so perhaps Manchester is merely the Federer to Corpus Christi's Nadal. But as one of the many who failed miserably to win a place at either of our most prestigious universities, I'd be happy to see them get their arses kicked by the Northerners.