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It's estimated that there may be as many as 5 million students with profiles on Facebook.

When Facebook becomes too revealing

Information on popular Web site can come back to haunt students

By Rick Moore

April 7, 2006

Jessica, a real University of Minnesota undergraduate student with a fake name for this story, has a run-of-the-mill profile on Facebook.com. She describes herself as "probably too laid back." In addition, she hates "the feeling of wet jeans" as well as "rain and slush and wet snow."

Fair enough. I know someone who likes pina coladas and actually getting caught in the rain. But that probably dates me a bit, and I'm not really the intended audience of Facebook--an immensely popular Web site that millions of college students are using to socialize with peers at their school and at universities around the country.

Other students on Facebook reveal a bit more about their extracurricular preferences. "Craig" belongs to the "I Drink, I Party, and Damnit, I'm Awesome!! (Minnesota Chapter)" group, whose credo is, "This group is all about rocking out and having fun together. (While being WASTED of course.)" And then there's "Jamie," whose profile includes a photo of her on the receiving end of a substantial amount of her favorite beverage.

Jamie might be fine with that photo for now. But the problem with posting information or photos on Facebook--or sites like MySpace or Friendster--is that you never know whose eyes might eventually see them. These days, information can often lead a wild and mercurial life on the Internet. And Facebook, whose audience is primarily all the students at a given university or college, is more broadly accessible than some students might think. Anyone with a university-based e-mail account (with the suffix .edu at the end) can use it, which means that faculty, staff, and alumni may be privy to the thoughts and opinions of students, not to mention photos from that fun party last month.

Whyte is working to produce guidelines to give to students using Facebook. He expects that they'll be ready for incoming students sometime this summer and available for all students by the fall.

Already, there has been fallout from Facebook. According to Marjorie Savage, director of the U's Parent Program, information from the site is being used for an array of unintended purposes. Advisers of student organizations have been checking Facebook and notifying students if their page does not reflect the values of their organization. Some on-campus employers have looked at the site when they're deciding between applicants. And off-campus employers have had alumni who work in their company look up Facebook pages of job applicants.

All of this has universities scurrying to decide what advice to give their students about Facebook. Amelious Whyte, chief of staff in the Office of Student Affairs, says he recently attended two national conferences for student affairs professionals, and each had multiple sessions on Facebook. "[The sessions] were packed, because there's a lot of interest in this issue," Whyte says. "It's the new buzz thing people are talking about."

Through recent reports in the media, more students are aware of the fact that their Facebook postings are visible to more than just current University students. Heather Lokken, a University sophomore, agrees that "a lot of people put up photos of drinking and stuff like that that employers might not appreciate." She has friends who have asked other friends to remove questionable photos of them from their profile. Lokken isn't worried about her own information, as she doesn't see it portraying her negatively, and she says her friends wouldn't post anything she wouldn't approve of.

Another University student, who asked to remain anonymous for this story, is also not concerned about Facebook because she doesn't have "too much dangerous information" on her profile, she's already been accepted to graduate school, and most of her pictures are of outdoor scenery.

But she has had firsthand experience with a curious company; in fact, her boyfriend's employer asked her to look up Facebook information on a particular person. She declined the request.

"I think it's kind of an ethical, gray area for employers," notes Kevin Rice, a junior who has been on Facebook since last October, but who chooses to keep his profile private to those outside his designated Facebook "friends" list. Rice points out that people's racial and religious information can be readily apparent on Facebook, which is "not something an employer really needs to know."

The important thing for students, he adds, is to protect themselves and "not put up public information that could be detrimental to their future career growth."

Whyte is working to produce guidelines to give to students using Facebook. He expects that they'll be ready for incoming students sometime this summer and available for all students by the fall.

In the end, discretion may be the better part of online socializing. Says Savage: "Obviously, there also are some great uses of Facebook, and students love it, but some caution is a good idea."