As Facebook grows, more than just friends are watching

By Brian Martucci

Stop and listen for a minute or two in any high-traffic area of campus and you are guaranteed to hear at least one student mention the Facebook in passing conversation. Indeed, according to Techcrunch.com, this academia-exclusive networking site has become a part of the daily lives of an astounding 85 percent of students at participating colleges. An ingenious cross between Myspace and the White Pages, the Facebook is increasingly surpassing colleges’ and universities’ own student directories as students’ preferred method of finding and contacting peers.Launched in February 2004 by three Harvard roommates (who dropped out of school to run the site after it became popular), Facebook was ‘”initially a small project that we imagined Harvard students would enjoy,”‘ a company spokesperson said in the British newspaper The Guardian. “[It] really works as an information directory and not just as a site you go to when you’re bored or need entertainment.”

Yet Facebook does provide a good deal of entertainment for many students. The user- friendly site allows members to create personal profiles that organize information into several categories, the most interesting of which is called “personal” information and can often balloon into several pages’ worth of text. Another major draw is Facebook’s liberal picture-posting software, which allows the appending of JPEG images to a profile both by the user themselves and the user’s “friends.” Public and private messaging forums as well as invite-only online “groups” and “parties”-often simply guest lists for real-life campus parties to be held at a future date-cement the site’s status as the organizational hub of a vast collegiate social network.

This has been both a blessing and a curse for some users. While Macalester’s administration has thus far, at least officially, ignored the Facebook profiles of its students, others have not been so lenient. The casual, easy nature of posting pictures on the site has led the administration of UC Santa Barbara to discipline students for appearing in Facebook pictures holding containers of alcohol, for example.

“If it’s against campus policy and it’s posted online, it’s fair game, according to officials at UC Santa Barbara,” UCLA’s newspaper The Daily Bruin reported. The article quotes Facebook spokesman Chris Hughes as saying, ‘”Students can technically be held accountable for what they post on Facebook because it is a public forum.”‘

Perhaps the highest-profile example of this is former Fisher College student Cameron

Walker. Upset about an antagonistic campus police officer, Walker joined a Facebook group protesting the man’s actions and made a provocative post: “Either we get a petition [to get him fired] or we set him up. He’s got to do something wrong…he’s gotta foul up at some point.”

By the next week, Walker had been expelled from school. According to the Boston Globe, Fisher College officials said simply, ‘”Cameron Walker was found to be in violation of the Student Guide and Code of Conduct.”‘

Such incidents have raised concerns among students and free-speech advocates that young people might soon have to find another medium in which to express themselves without fear of retribution or censorship. Yet so far these concerns seem confined only to a small number of schools. At Mac, at least, free expression is alive and well on the Facebook.

It is not uncommon to find pictures of Macalester students drinking, posing with drug paraphernalia, passed out on the floor, and so on. Several pictures feature semicircles of people in the act of taking shots; in one photo, two Mac students with conspicuously popped collars drink bottles of beer. Students appear to feel no shame about revealing their participation in such (possibly) illegal activities.

Tom Klink ’08 explained his theory on why many find it easy to post personal pictures and information that can be viewed by any number of total strangers. “It’s kind of like your own personal space and you never really feel like people can invade that space…while you might often look at other people’s profiles, you never really realize that other people can look at yours too.”

David Gilchrist ’09 had a different take on the issue. Asked why he feels no shame about posting a compromising picture of himself on his Facebook profile, he responded simply, “I thought it would be kickass.