By NANCY HASS
The New York Times
January 8, 2006
AS far as Kyle Stoneman is concerned, the campus police were the ones
who started the Facebook wars. "We were just being, well, college
students, and they used it against us," says Mr. Stoneman, a senior at
George Washington University in Washington. He is convinced that the
campus security force got wind of a party he and some buddies were
planning last year by monitoring Facebook.com, the phenomenally
popular college networking site. The officers waited till the shindig
was in full swing, Mr. Stoneman grouses, then shut it down on
discovering under-age drinking.
Mr. Stoneman and his friends decided to fight back. Their weapon of
choice? Facebook, of course.
Once again they used the site, which is visited by more than 80
percent of the student body, to chat up a beer blast. But this time,
when the campus police showed up, they found 40 students and a table
of cake and cookies, all decorated with the word "beer." "We even set
up a cake-pong table," a twist on the beer-pong drinking game, he
says. "The look on the faces of the cops was priceless." As the coup
de grace, he posted photographs of the party on Facebook, including
a portrait of one nonplussed officer.
A university spokesman, Tracy Schario, insists that noise complaints,
not nosing around Facebook, led the police to both parties. But, she
says, "it's sort of an inevitability that if a party is talked about
on the site, word of it will reach the enforcement people, who then
have no choice but to investigate." In fact, two campus police
officers and the chief's assistant are among the 14,000 Facebook
members at George Washington.
The stunt could be read as a sign that Facebook has become more than
a way for young people to stay in touch. Started in 2004 by Harvard
students who wanted to animate the black-and-white thumbnail photos
of freshman directories, the site is the ninth most visited on the
Internet, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings, and is used by nearly
five million college students. Facebook is available at most of the
country's four-year colleges, and many two-year colleges, too.
Because of its popularity, though, the site has become a flashpoint
for debates about free speech, privacy and whether the Internet should
be a tool for surveillance. It has also raised concerns from parents,
administrators and even students about online "addiction." "There are
people on this campus who are totally obsessed with it, who check
their profile 5, 6, 20 times a day," says Ingrid Gallagher, a
sophomore at the University of Michigan. "But I think that more and
more people are realizing that it also has a dark side."
Her estimates are not far off. Nearly three-quarters of Facebook users
sign on at least once every 24 hours, and the average users sign on
six times a day, says Chris Hughes, a spokesman for the site.
Using it is simple: students create online profiles, which they can
stock with personal details like sexual preferences, favorite movies
and phone contact numbers, with links to photo albums and diaries.
The details listed are by no means reliable; it's common, under
"personal relationships," to list a spouse as a joke (as does Mr.
Stoneman). Like most networking sites, Facebook enables users to
compile lists of friends whose names and photos are displayed, and to
post public comments on other people's profiles.
One of the most attractive features to many students is that they can
track down friends from high school at other colleges. Users can also
join or form groups with names that run from the prosaic ("Campus
Republicans") to the prurient ("We Need to Have Sex in Widener Before
We Graduate") and the dadaesque ("I Am Fond of Biscuits and Scones").
Unlike general networking sites like Friendster and myspace.com, which
let anyone join, Facebook and xuqa.com, which was started last year by
a student at Williams, are confined to the insular world of the
campus, which Internet experts say is the key to their success. Last
fall, Facebook opened a parallel site for high school students. To
sign up, a high school student has to be referred by a college student
who is a Facebook user.
Facebook's charms are obvious even to administrators. "It's a
fantastic tool for building community," says Anita
Farrington-Brathwaite, assistant dean for freshmen at New York
University. "In a school like ours that doesn't have an enclosed
campus, it really gives people a way to find each other and connect."
Harvard's president, Lawrence H. Summers, gave kudos to Facebook in
the opening lines of his address to freshmen in September, saying he
had been browsing the site to get to know everyone.
But concerns have flourished with Facebook's popularity. Despite
safeguards placed on access -- only those with valid university e-mail
addresses, ending in edu, can register as users, and students can bar
specific people from viewing their profiles -- administrators and
parents worry about cyberstalking.