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Back when I was seven or eight, my family got its first computer. Then we got a dial-up internet connection. Somewhere around age 10 or 11, I started to understand this newfangled internet, and used e-mail to sign up for a pen-pal program on an early precursor to chat rooms and forums. I exchanged e-mails and used an early chat program to communicate with a girl who lived just outside London.

Like most childhood pen-pal exchanges, it fizzled out. In those several months of pen-pal friendship I experienced the greatest thing that the internet had the potential to offer — real, engaging connections with people I couldn’t easily meet in person. What my starry-eyed, 11-year-old mind had discovered was that the internet had the power to shrink the best parts of the world into an 8-by-12-inch screen that I could access from my living room.

As I grew up, however, my eyes lost some of their sparkle and my mind was bombarded with too many stories of online sexual predators and cyber-bullies to believe that the great potential of the internet could ever be realized again. That is, until I heard about Reddit’s Secret Santa project a few weeks ago. A simple holiday game reminds us of the power of interpersonal connections.

The Reddit Secret Santa program was started by a few users of the social-news website in anticipation of the holidays. All the participants sign up and receive another Reddit member’s shipping address. They’re then responsible for digging through their “Santee’s” Reddit profile and general online presence to come up with a thoughtful gift costing approximately $15. The idea is that if it works perfectly, thousands of people in the online community bring a little bit of happiness into each others’ lives. This is the first year the program is being run on such a large scale. Since its trial run last year, it has escalated from 4,500 to more than 17,000 gift-exchangers across 90 countries.

To skeptics who don’t believe that such a large-scale program working on the honor system could hold up over the internet, more than 90 percent of participants received gifts from their secret Santa last year. This year, these gift givers and receivers include Penn students, such as Engineering freshman Kevin Shen. A Reddit member for two years, Shen is taking part in the Secret Santa exchange for the first time this winter. He wrote in an e-mail that he signed up because “everybody likes to get stuff in the mail.”

As cliched as it might sound at this time of year, the sentiment of doing something for someone else’s happiness that’s captured in statements like Shen’s really punctures a hole in the cynicism we are only too eager to associate with the internet today. The generosity and fun-lovingness demonstrated in the actions of 17,000 individuals reminds us that there are good people in the world who want to do good things, and the internet can be a wonderful facilitator for them.

But this kind of program doesn’t only have the effect of reaffirming my faith in the incredible potential of the internet. It also shows how making connections with other people can foster a stronger sense of community. In a way, it channels the same innocence, excitement and power to connect that I experienced as an elementary-school kid — the same things that many of us cherish in our close-knit communities offline.

The Penn community has come together in incredible ways since my freshman year — from the tolerance barbeque protesting the Westboro Baptist Church to the campaign to restructure the Undergraduate Assembly. Maybe it’s time we came together for no reason other than an appreciation for one another in a Penn-wide Secret Santa.

Tanvi Gupta is a College senior from Southeast Asia. Her e-mail address is Cosmopoli-Tanvi appears on alternate Mondays.

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