Michael Oxman drags himself to his computer each morning and swivels the mouse until a white and blue screen appears. As he squints his sleep-deprived eyes, his profile shows two people requesting his friendship, five messages from his Northwestern swimming and diving teammates, three friends with updated profile information and eight new pictures of himself.
Ten minutes on Facebook.com allows Oxman, a Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior from Mequon, Wis., to do what in the past could take hours: organize and input new friends’ information, share memories of a night out, update contact information and collect the latest photos.
Zora Senat, a School of Communication first-year student from Dallas, calls Facebook a combination of AOL Instant Messenger (see “RU N2 IM?,” winter 2003), the telephone and e-mail. Olivia Tang, a Weinberg junior from Hong Kong, calls it simply “fabulous.”
Facebook is a 21st-century fusion of photo albums, phone books, yearbooks, scrapbooks and the former freshmen “facebooks.” An online social community, it provides almost anyone whose e-mail address ends in “edu” with control over “My Profile,” a personal page with the capacity to display all the vitals: name, addresses, phone numbers, hobbies and interests, links to photo albums and a list of “My Friends.” It is also equipped with “The Wall,” an area specifically designed for people to write notes on (think virtual yearbook).
This social network was created in 2004 by Harvard University sophomore Mark Zuckerberg for his fellow classmates. After 6,000 students signed up within three weeks, he opened it up to other schools, says Chris Hughes, Facebook spokesperson and Zuckerberg’s sophomore-year roommate.
As of November 2005, Facebook ranked seventh among all web sites in terms of overall traffic on the Internet. With more than 15,000 new members signing up daily at nearly 2,200 colleges and more than 22,000 high schools across the nation, Facebook is a one-stop shop for any information on the high school and college crowd.
Northwestern boasts more than 700 student-made Facebook groups that highlight the subtleties of college life, including “04 Alumni … You Know Who Runs It,” “Greek Wildcats,” “Two Chipotle Burritos” and “Northwestern University Important Sounding Club.”
The group “I Almost Died in a Blizzard Today Between Kresge and Tech” has 100 members who are coming to terms with Chicago winters, and “Still Wondering Where Our $44,000 Goes …” is a group of more than 380 students who have a message board dedicated to revealing and reorganizing Northwestern’s budget.
Facebook allows students to stay connected in a world that is increasingly mobile. Students who leave the United States to study or work can keep in touch through photos and messaging without inconvenient e-mail attachments and pricey cell phone bills. The process works the other way for international students studying in the United States. Tang can reconnect with her Hong Kong high school classmates studying at U.S. colleges through the global high school search.
With Facebook, there really is no excuse for losing touch with friends, since their information is organized into an online Rolodex.
However, some are beginning to ask how much available information is too much. Contrary to many parents’ and administrators’ concerns, students worry less about the security of their contact information and more about how other users perceive them.
More than 300 faculty and staff are registered on Facebook. Any one of them could stumble upon incriminating information or photos, even if that was not their intent. Some material could come back to haunt a job or graduate school applicant.
“We remind students to think of consequences,” says Mary Lou Taylor, a senior career counselor at University Career Services. “Anyone can look at it. If someone is in the position of making a decision, they could be using any available information.”
Oxman takes a second look at every picture of himself on Facebook to decide whether it stays or goes. “I know adults who can see everything,” he says, referring to his coaches and trainers for the Northwestern swimming and diving team.
Lindsey Loughran, a Northwestern athletic trainer, is one of those adults. An avid Facebook user and member of the “NU Swimmers Do It Faster, Longer and Harder” group, Loughran does not actively look for bad pictures but feels “it might be good if [my membership] makes them think before they post something.”
Nevertheless, as more adults log on, more students are using security settings to limit their profiles to “friends” only.
Robert Brownell, a Weinberg senior from Mill Valley, Calif., restricted his profile because he doesn’t want his character judged solely by what’s on Facebook. Sarah Louise Windham, a Weinberg senior from Vicksburg, Miss., thinks Facebook should be limited to students. “A friend might have a raunchy message or naked pictures,” she says. “We find these hilarious. Professors do not.”
While Facebook provides an online environment to share the college experience, it can also provide solidarity and comfort after a tragedy. When a Northwestern senior died in November 2005, friends and fellow students honored him on his Facebook page.
“The message wall became a way to say goodbye to him,” Tang said of the more than 100 messages posted on his profile.
Wendi Gardner, associate professor in social psychology, called it a virtual wake. “It was a place for people to share stories and memories, but they didn’t all have to be there at the same time or physically be in the same place,” she says.
She sees Facebook as a tool for maintaining relationships. An element of what she dubs “social snacking,” Facebook satisfies part of a need for social interaction by allowing users to reread messages and look at pictures in their free time.
“If you can’t have a ‘full meal,’ a deep interaction, you have these little reminders of our social connections,” she explains.
Everyone, it seems — including Joseph Medill and Willie the Wildcat — is getting onto Facebook (even if they didn’t create their own profile), and the list is getting longer. Everyone’s circle of friends is getting a little larger.
Kim Weisensee, a Medill School of Journalism sophomore from Addison, Ill., is a Northwestern editorial intern.
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