Saving Face

Of all the ways to waste time nowadays, the Internet provides endless choices. Online games, gambling sites, shopping, and e-mail now play an integral role in many people’s lives. And those people aren’t just college students; many employees, housewives, and retirees wile away the hours in front of the computer screen. Today there is a different category of distraction, and college-goers are uniquely susceptible; online communities like MySpace and Facebook sidetrack students in more insidious ways. What, if anything, is a college to do about Facebook use?

Online Socialization

Online social networking communities, including sites like Friendster and Flickr, along with MySpace and Facebook, have not been around for very long (MySpace debuted in 2003), yet they grew very popular very quickly. Today, Facebook — the favorite site for college students, with MySpace claiming more high-schoolers, with some overlap — claims 11 million plus users, with 20,000 new accounts created every day.

Started in 2004 by Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg, the free, online social network receives around 250 million hits per day. These numbers, gleaned from a report by Jamie Dulle, coordinator of Student Judicial Services at Wright State University in Dayton, OH, place Facebook at seventh place overall in Internet traffic. To put that in perspective, the popular Google search engine is in sixth.

To get started on Facebook, users create a personal profile. This profile contains basic information about the person like his or her gender, birthday, and political leanings. Pictures can also be uploaded and included. Only people listed as the users’ friends can access their pages, or if a user allows it, friends of friends. Users can also create a“badge;” a version of a Facebook profile that users can place into personal Web pages or blogs. Non-Facebook members are able to view these badges.

Other Facebook elements include a Wall, where friends can post messages; Notes with pictures; and Status, which updates people on the user’s location. Users can also create or join groups.“One of my favorite groups was ‘Students Who Are Oppressed by Gary Dickstein,’” said Gary Dickstein, director, Office of Student Judicial Services and Greek Affairs at Wright State University.

Questionable Content

Along with questionable groups like the aforementioned “Students Who Are Oppressed…” crowd, there are others like “Chugg-a-lugg,” “I Would So Totally Have Sex in the Library,” and “Black Students Go Home.” And it’s not just the groups that may raise eyebrows. Pictures depicting alcohol or drug use, firearm displays, or sex acts get posted. “Something may be completely appropriate in the privacy of a bedroom but that status changes when you post a picture,” said Dickstein.

Which brings up the question: At what point does a school need to police Facebook, and does that point even exist? “The site itself fits clearly in the bull’s-eye of First Amendment protections,” said Tracy Mitrano, Director of IT Policy at Cornell University, in an article published by Educause Review. That, however, doesn’t mean a free-for-all. “Speech may be free but that freedom comes at a cost,” continued Dickstein. “Can students post inappropriate material? Yes. But we may ask them to come in to talk about it.”

This policy shouldn’t be misconstrued to mean that the administration is policing the site. “We don’t have the staff time or energy to monitor Facebook,” said Dickstein. And he doesn’t want students to think that they have the safety net of being monitored. “If we say we are policing the site and then miss something we could be held liable.”

Establish Protocols

Dickstein suggests having a protocol in place when a person makes a formal complaint about a posting. “We would investigate the complaint just like any other incident,” he said. “If what was posted violates the Student Code of Conduct then action may be taken.”

Yet students suspect being watched on Facebook. “When I attended a forum on this subject at Cornell in February 2006, what students really wanted to know was whether any of us had looked at their pages,” reported Mitrano in her article. There may be something to that suspicion.

For example, some Penn State University (PSU) students rushed the field after the October 2005 win over Ohio State. A post-incident online search found a Facebook photo album called “I rushed the field after the OSU game and lived,” complete with labeled pictures. PSU police took appropriate action. “We contacted the individuals and sent a stern warning,” said Tyrone Parham, assistant director for the PSU police.

Sometimes it’s the students who are setting up the sting. After rumors flew at George Washington University that campus police were watching Facebook, some students started talking about a big, alcohol-fueled “Cake Party.” When the officers arrived they found throngs of students downing shot glasses filled with cake and frosting.

Admittedly, these represent extreme examples of the student/administration/Facebook relationship. For the most part, all parties want to maintain a healthy balance of watching and looking away. This includes educating students about the pitfalls of the site as well as the advantages. “Universities have a responsibility to educate students about the potential impact of what they disclose,” said Kimberlie Goldsberry, executive director of student involvement and leadership at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

Maintaining a Balance

“Ask yourself, ‘How will what I say impact my life in the future?’ ‘Would I be comfortable having my grandmother, rabbi, or girlfriend’s parents read this?’” continued Dickstein. “We tell them that you shouldn’t put anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t put on a big sign on your front lawn.”

That includes extremely personal information like cell phone numbers, addresses, and one of Facebook’s newest functions — “status” — which allows you to update friends on your current location. “Would you put your daily itinerary on your front lawn?” asked Dickstein, “because that’s what this function does. It can be dangerous.”

Despite Facebook’s potential dangers it’s not going away anytime soon. “We would never limit bandwidth to keep kids off the site,” continued Dickstein. “Back when Napster was illegal we did that, and some private institutions limit bandwidth, but now we’re more concerned with educating students on how to use the service responsibly.”

And that includes knowing when to turn the service off and get studying. “There is no statistical data to back this up yet, but I believe that Facebook adversely effects the academic success of freshmen,” said Dickstein. “There’s a thesis in the making.”