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Facebook: The Phenomena, The Power, and The Pitfalls

By Robin Raskin

Social networking --- building communities that bring people together on the Internet has manifested itself in countless and clever ways, but it’s the youth market that will push the notion of building communities of user generated content and connections to new levels. For professionals, sites like allow people to broaden their contact network by using a “who knows who” approach to facilitate introductions., made famous during the Howard Dean presidential campaign, helps people with like interests (from politics to Scrabble) find each other in cyberspace and then meet in the physical world. Adult dating sites like, let those with romantic inclinations cut to the chase and search for a soul mate in ways that transcend the geographical boundaries.

QuoteBut the tidal wave of activity at this moment is happening at and where the youth market (ages 13- 22) congregate. Both let registered users create profile pages with detailed information about who they are and what they like to do. With a profile established they proceed to build a network of friends and friends of friends. To the consternation of their parents and teachers, many of the profile pages include everything from suggestive photos, sexual preferences, to explicit details of what they did last weekend. began life as a website to help unknown musicians get their works heard. Today it’s a virtual community with over 38 million members who post profile pages detailing their life in words, music and pictures. MySpace’s great success may ultimately be its demise. As MySpace becomes over populated, and as its new corporate parent, News Corp, tries to increase its revenues, there’s a likely probability that the fickle youth market will jump to the next hot spot.

The most interesting social network in cyberspace today is the Facebook is one of the first social networks to have a built in exclusivity. The community is closed to anyone who doesn’t belong to an academic community. (For the college community this means having an .edu address. To students who flock to register, the site’s “school community” message provides a sense of belonging and safety. Not only can “like” people find each other on Facebook, but only “like” people can join in the first place.

The .edu requirement gives Facebook its unique ambience. On college campuses it has become the electronic replacement for those aging printed facebooks or viewbooks that many schools dispense (at great expense) as student directories. It has 6 million subscribers, many who are daily devotees. Recent estimates say as many of 80-90% of students on campuses where Facebook has been adopted have profile pages and the majority of those student members check their Facebook daily.

When it started in 2004 the Facebook was created for college students. In the fall of 2005, a separate entry portal for high schools was launched. High school students are required to register as members of a school, just like on the college pages. Today there are about 2,000 colleges and 22,000 high schools registered. Of course, the instant a high school student is accepted (and accepts) to a college they are given an .edu address. Hence, a built in rite of passage.

Because it services students, Facebook may provide a false sense of security. Many students believe they can mingle with their peers free from intruders. However, after a few public incidents and copious attention from the press, they are quickly learning that Facebook not only makes no guarantees that people who don’t belong stay out, but that because of it’s popularity it’s become something of a target for a bevy of surprise visitors. Stories abound about how everyone from marketers, to job recruiters, to college admissions counselors, to teachers and even law enforcement are using Facebook to see what students are doing.

Rules Of Engagement

On Facebook, your personal profile page is a template where you can voluntarily enter a variety of personal information --- everything from birthday, to hobbies, hometown, phone number, sexual and political orientation, college major, classes, favorite books and music and more. While Facebook has privacy features that could limit who sees these profile pages, most students ignore them.

QuoteBeneath the Facebook profile pages is a powerful database. Every entry field is searchable. So, for instance, with a click you can find out who on Facebook is in your chemistry class, who shares your birthday, whether that freshman you spotted is engaged in a meaningful relationship, or where your high school buddies are now.

The rules of engagement for Facebook users are elegantly simple yet there are countless ways to explore these profile pages. Any member can browse the entire Facebook for names and institutional affiliations, but a detailed profile view of another member is only exposed once a person becomes part of a student’s social group. Friends are allowed to join a group by invitation only. Ardent Facebook users will collect friends (reaching out to friends of friends) often measuring their popularity by how big a circle of Facebook friends they can amass.

Return Visits

Other features of Facebook are designed to keep members constantly running back to check the latest developments. “The wall” is a place on your profile page where others in a network can post comments to a member, or about a member. It’s the Internet equivalent of “the bathroom stall”.

Text entry is just a piece of the action. Facebook also allows students to post a photo gallery. It’s here, that weekend parties, sports games, and other social scenes are often documented. A relatively new feature lets Facebookers tag the people in the photos by name. They, in turn can search for photos tagged with their name across any of their friends sites.

QuoteOf course Facebook is not one happy, homogenous group of students. There are tons of subgroups created each day where like-minded individuals can find camaraderie. You’ll find alumnae groups, rugby groups, political activists and they’ll find each other.

Students are smitten by Facebook in varying degrees, but the majority confess that it's an important and fairly constant part of their lives. They’ll check their pages for comments, messages and general happenings. They’ll use it to arrange everything from dates to parties to study sessions. Most say they use it to stay in touch with friends they already know and nearly all admit they’ve used it to “check out” people before meeting them.

Trouble Lurks

Parents and educators have become apoplectic as the press reports Facebook incidents. Some private high schools have banned the use of school email addresses on Facebook, threatening expulsion. Law enforcement agents have raided college parties after they were posted on Facebook. Admissions officers, teachers, and administrators have made scanning Facebook for mentions of their school or students a part of their day.

The Facebook phenomena is not lost to marketers either. Marketers, who also have .edu addresses, are already mining the profile pages for significant data. Facebook even calls out the top trends in movies, music and literature in a section called PULSE. They’ve also begun to use a combination of ads and messages to do everything from extending offers to try new products, or getting students to sign onto focus groups. Any marketer worth his paycheck is flocking to Facebook pouring over the pages to get a hold on the psyche of this important demographic.

Despite the infiltration students seem to be both optimistic and naïve about the exclusivity of Facebook. They’ll post compromising photos, and intimate details of their life with little regard to who might be accessing the information. By the same token, adults should take Facebook information with a big grain of salt. A quick read through of a few profile pages should confirm that there’s a good deal of fantasy, posturing, simple playfulness and outright being outlandish taking place on these pages.

Face-booking the Future

Ultimately Facebook may follow Friendster, and other early social networks that have become oversaturated, stale and stagnant. Students may move on to the next cyber-bar, somewhere that’s less notorious for attracting parents, teachers and the rest. But the rules of engagement for social networks will be similar. Kids will post detailed information in order to network with others. Teaching kids how to stay safe and protect themselves from revealing too much information on Facebook should be a top priority. But be forewarned, whether it’s Facebook or the next new thing, parents must help kids understand the implications of finding friends in cyberspace

About the Author
Robin Raskin, the former Editor in Chief of FamilyPC, is an Internet safety authority and a writer who speaks to parents and teachers across the country about raising digital kids. Her newest book, A Parent’s Guide to College Life is being published this month by Random House.

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