Facebook: A campus fad becomes a campus fact
The social-networking website isn't growing like it once did, but only because almost every US student is already on it.
Bridget Henry didn't think her school, the University of Iowa, gave students an appropriate venue to participate in the search for a new president. That's why Ms. Henry, a senior majoring in political science, started "Hogan's Heroes," a group supporting provost Michael Hogan for the job.Skip to next paragraph
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Henry and her friends tried a laundry list of ways to publicize "Hogan's Heroes" – everything from a letter-writing campaign to handing out flyers. But what succeeded most was their page on the social networking website Facebook, which attracted more than 200 supporters.
Even if Hogan doesn't get the job, Henry learned what colleges and universities are waking up to: Facebook is no longer just a fun way for students to keep in touch. It is now essential to the college experience, a fact that faculty and staff are scurrying to catch up with.
Soon to enter its fourth year, Facebook has matured into a warehouse of school information, a big-time player in campus activism, and a mirror of university life – good and bad. More than 12 million users are signed up.
School officials, most of whom were either dismissive or unaware of the phenomenon, are now awake to it. They hold Facebook-themed conferences. They sign up themselves. They monitor students. And they worry about information in student profiles, especially after hearing that employers routinely check them.
What do students do on Facebook? A lot.
Students still "friend" others in their school or regional networks, exchange messages and pictures (Facebook claims to be the largest photo-sharing website), check class schedules, or post diary notes.
Then there are groups like Henry's, for example. Or the one at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., that wants to revive sluggish campus social life. Hundreds of groups are out to ban something, from horse slaughter to button-fly jeans. The mother of all groups, started by Northwestern University student Ben Parr in September, has 450,000 people – 100,000 of which joined the first day. They made Facebook change an unpopular newsfeed feature that listed any change your friends made to their profiles. Campus organizations use Facebook, not fliers, to advertise membership and events.
Students running for campus office campaign on Facebook, as do actual politicians. Any candidate paying attention to youth was on Facebook for the November elections. Their staffs target students based on the political preferences they list.
Facebook also hosts the bad: sexual and racial harassment, hazing, extortion, and threats. School officials, even campus police, use the site to investigate.
"Any [campus] behavior that you could experience face to face, you'll see on Facebook," says Pablo Malavenda, associate dean of students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Mr. Malavenda created his profile in January 2005 and now has more than 700 friends. His early knowledge of the phenomenon made his school less reactive. As Facebook picked up steam, Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, banned its athletes from using it. The University of New Mexico banned it outright for months. Malavenda says the schools overreacted because they were confused – after all, he adds, social networking is the biggest campus phenomenon since phones were allowed in residence halls.
Malavenda knows dozens of Facebook stories: relationships that ended when one partner read the other's "wall" and realized that he or she was seeing others; the student who didn't get a job because their Facebook profile presented them as the next big thing in binge drinking.