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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.

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There's his own story, too. Last fall, Malavenda caught a group of students selling cocaine and kicked them off campus. In response, they started a Facebook group called "We hate Pablo," complete with directions to his house and instructions to hurt and eliminate him.

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"I signed up for this job with everything that comes with it," Malavenda says. "But my kids haven't. My wife hasn't."

Malavenda got the police involved. The students were put on academic suspension for five years. But he doesn't blame Facebook. "The behavior is what you deal with, not where it occurred," he says. It also doesn't hurt that a "We Love Pablo" group formed in response – something Malavenda says is "quite enjoyable."

Educating students about Facebook is a priority now, and the bulk of the efforts originate in the Student Affairs or IT departments. Brian Payst, director of technology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says schools need to use the changing ways in which students communicate. While Facebook orientation and policy documents are now common on campuses, some schools have gotten more creative. Mr. Payst and his team created two dummy profiles to illustrate the perils of excessive self-revelation. "Ivana Bea Stalked" posts her address, cellphone number, and writes of her recent piercings and wearing her favorite red underwear. "Lloyed Unemployed" brags about doing nothing and hopes to find a job that pays him to drink beer.

"We have to be flexible and try some different stuff," Payst says. "We'll have a better chance of getting the message to work."

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, Facebook and MySpace, another popular social-networking site, are addressed in a skit performed several times during summer welcome events. At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Tracy Mitrano, director of IT policy, wrote "Thoughts on Facebook," a nonacademic sounding document widely circulated among colleges.

"Trying to get a deal on car insurance?" it reads in part. "Who knows, maybe that little Geico went to Cornell! Do you really want him seeing a photograph of you bombed out of your mind?"

At Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., administrators sent "a call to action," asking faculty and staff to join Facebook in the hopes that it would have a "norming influence" on content. Joseph Howard, assistant director of residence life, says it seems to be working, as the school's Facebook network is now a "virtual Mercyhurst."

Not everyone embraces Facebook. Michael Bugeja, director of the journalism school at Iowa State University, views Facebook as one of several distractions that the spread of wireless access has allowed to flourish on campuses. Mr. Bugeja, who researched interaction with technology for his book "The Interpersonal Divide," says it's important that administrators keep tabs not only on the virtual world, but also the physical world, checking on where, and for how long, students access Facebook. "Technology is never a single phenomenon," Bugeja says. "You're in the physical world and the virtual world. We continue to believe technology advances the senses. But no, it splits the senses."

Bugeja says he is not a technophobe, but he worries that technology will undermine the teaching of critical thinking. "Facebook is a fine vehicle to organize a celebration or a protest, to inform users about schedules and events and it can facilitate real friendships," he says. "But those are the exceptions, not the rule."

Facebook seems to fly in the face of the short life expectancy of Internet phenomena. It's not growing at the same pace it did – but only because almost every student in the US is on it. New freshmen sign on every year. "They have dominated their niche," says Fred Stutzman, who studies Facebook for his doctoral dissertation at UNC. "No one even competes."