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Virtual Society

By Megan Haley


When freshman Erin Milliren received her roommate assignment in the mail last summer, she didn't pick up the phone or write an e-mail to get to know her new “roomie.” Instead, her first impression was based on her roommate's personal profile on Facebook.com.

The Web site has transformed the PLU campus over the past two years – and thousands of other college campuses – and is part of the growing movement techies call “Web 2.0,” or the second-generation of the Internet.

This so-called second generation is all about social networking. The initial Internet boom centered on e-commerce, but as that sector matured, a new use for the Internet has emerged. Increasingly, and particularly among young adults, Web sites that allow people to post personal profiles and send messages to friends have become the new online frontier.

There are several well known social networking sites, including MySpace.com. For college students, Facebook is the site of choice.

Launched in a Harvard dorm two years ago, Facebook is a free online service with more than 9.5 million members worldwide who share messages, photographs and personal information on individual profile pages.

After registering for access to the site, members create personal profiles that typically contain biographical information, relationship status, political affiliation, favorite bands and movies, hobbies, photos and more. Members are divided into geographic, work-related, collegiate and high school networks, which make it easier to find people within the vast Facebook community.

The networking happens as members compile a list of “friends” and exchange private and public messages or join one of the thousands of online groups available through Facebook.

When Milliren found her roommate's profile on the Facebook Web site, she quickly concluded they had little in common.

“She was from southern California, and with me being from Seattle, I thought, ‘I'm not sure I'll be able to handle this,'” Milliren said.

Milliren was among thousands of college students this fall who checked out their new roommates online. Newspapers nationwide ran stories about residential life offices receiving an unprecedented volume of calls from parents and students, concerned about what they read about a new roommate online. Many demanded new roommate assignments, leaving administrators to, in most cases, calmly insist students get to know one another in person before making hasty judgments.

“We try to get back at the fact that this is an opportunity to build a relationship and discover something new about yourself,” said Stephanie Serventi, operations manager of the Residential Life Office. Her office was among those that received significantly more calls this summer from concerned parents.

Residential Life is working to embrace Facebook and determine how to use it to their advantage.

“We've tried to see the positives and the advantages it brings to building a community,” she said.

For instance, junior Colleen Silcox, a resident assistant in Ordal Hall, used Facebook to unify her residents by creating a group named after her hall.

Groups are a major aspect of the Facebook experience, allowing members to form loose associations based on common interests. They range from serious to silly, and PLU alone has more than 600. There are groups dedicated to specific residence halls, like Silcox's, as well as those dedicated to Campus Safety, ASPLU, people from Skagit Valley (Skagitonians Unite!) and even squirrel lovers – and haters.

Senior Erik Husa helped organize the 15th annual Pierce County AIDS Walk in September, and used a group called the “AIDS Walk Team” to increase awareness of and involvement in the event.

“It's cheap and relatively effortless in making a large number of people aware of the event,” he said. “It's expandable beyond myself.”

Husa compared the groups to a listserv because he was able to “invite” his 200-plus Facebook friends list to join the group, and they in turn could pass on the invite to their network. Husa's AIDS Walk team ultimately reached 167 members.

“There's a lot of socializing being done and a lot of networking being done,” said Eli Berniker, a professor of business. “It's very much in line with what this school is all about.”

The overall effect of this at-times frenzied socializing is that a virtual PLU – distinct from the physical campus – is being created largely by and for students.

Online communication is nothing new for the generation of young adults currently attending colleges and universities, Berniker said. Berniker recently co-authored a paper with his daughter, Lilac Berniker '97. In it, the two argue that a stable economy paired with the popularity of the Internet have created a generation less interested in material goods and more focused on participating in and producing culture through networking sites, blogs and online games.

“When a culture experiences plenty, they invest in the arts and culture – that's what I think is going on in (this) generation,” Berniker said.

Young adults are drawn to online networking sites because they have the power to create their own identity. They are no longer spectators watching from the sidelines, consuming a product created by someone else.

The public persona users create, however, is not always the whole truth, and it often reveals more than parents, administrators and some students are comfortable sharing.

“To them, privacy is not nearly as important as identity,” Berniker explained.

It is not uncommon for students to post where they live, their phone numbers and their class schedules, giving hundreds of people – some their friends, some not – access to the most intimate details of their lives.

Facebook has privacy controls that allow students to restrict access to their profile to just those in the PLU network or those on their friends list. But many students have vast networks of “friends” they barely know. One freshman said she receives many requests to be friends from people she doesn't know, but she accepts them because they belong to the PLU network.

Many students don't realize what a good tool Facebook can be for stalkers, said Bobbi Hughes, the director of the Women's Center.

“They don't think about it because they've grown up with technology. (Instant messaging) and communicating online is more normal than talking,” she said.

Hughes said she often hears stories about unwanted midnight phone calls or Facebook messages. When she points out that it sounds like stalking, many students balk at the idea because the online behavior doesn't fit their stereotype of a black-cloaked stranger or Peeping Tom.

Not all students are so cavalier with their personal information.

Senior Tiffanie Clark doesn't post personal information on her profile in order to keep strangers from learning too much about her, she said.

“Even though there are privacy controls, I don't trust them,” Clark said.

According to Serventi, Residential Life seizes opportunities to educate students about the pitfalls of Facebook. Her staff doesn't go out looking for photos of students drinking and partying, but when incidents are brought to their attention, the staff doesn't let the “teachable moment” pass.

Rather than punishing students, Serventi and her staff take the opportunity to advise students on the risks associated with posting compromising information. Future employers, parents, professors and, for that matter, anyone with an e-mail address, can view the content.

Residential Life staff try to frame the issue in the “3-D world” by asking students if they would post their Facebook profile – including incriminating photos – on the door to their room. Those two public places are essentially the same, Serventi said.

These privacy issues have become more acute in recent months. Facebook went from a community exclusively for students to, in September, anyone with an e-mail address. In other words, the world.

Opening up the Facebook network will undoubtedly provide more opportunities to confront stereotypes and form new alliances with people who share interests, some as obscure as an affinity for the country-cooking restaurant Cracker Barrel (Brotherhood of the Cracker Barrel).

As Milliren learned, you shouldn't judge someone based on his or her Facebook profile. After she and her roommate sent messages back and forth through the site and finally talked on the phone, she realized her initial assumptions were wrong. Her roommate was not simply a beach-lounging, blonde California girl. She was a well-rounded person who shared many of Milliren's interests.

“We both have traveled extensively and have a passion for languages,” she said. “We have similar experiences and being able to share that is really cool.”

Safety Tips

1. Be as anonymous as possible - Avoid postings that could enable a stranger to locate you. This includes your full name, address, phone numbers, sports teams and where you hang out.

2. Protect your info - Use the “friends” list to control who can visit your profile or blog. Allow only people you know and trust to view your information. If you don't use privacy features, anyone can see your info. (Source: BlogSafety.com)

 

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© Scene 2006  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Winter 2006

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