Late last year, Stuart Wilson met a girl at a wedding in Ft. Worth, Texas. When Mr. Wilson, a recent college graduate, returned to Ft. Worth for Christmas he planned on giving the girl a call and asking her out for a date. This might have been a love story, if not for a website known as Facebook.
One of Mr. Wilson's friends suggested he check out the girl, a Texas A&M student, on Facebook, an online networking website created for college and high-school students. Armed with a login and password from a friend, Mr. Wilson quickly found his potential date's profile. "The first thing I noticed was that there were 47 pictures of her linked to her profile," he said. After checking out photos of her with her sorority sisters, at football games, and at camp, he checked out what she listed as her interests.
"It was a weird Cliff-Notes version of her. Helped remind me of some of the things we talked about-some of the things I knew about her," he said. "I didn't see anything in there that really fired me up. She maybe lost a half point with the favorite music section."
Within 15 minutes, Mr. Wilson had gone from ready to ask her out to not so certain. "You know what you usually accomplish on a first date? I feel like I did that through Facebook. And I did it in such a way that it totally killed any desire to go on another date with this girl."
If you haven't heard of Facebook.com, it probably means you're older than 25. But if you're a parent of a college student or high-schooler, chances are your child not only has heard of it, but possibly also has posted scads of personal information-including photographs and personal interests-available for his classmates to see. It's akin to an online interactive yearbook where students have the editorial control and parents are left on the outside unable to look in.
Facebook turns 2 years old this month-a ballooning toddler of a trend with 12.4 million members. And the online networking destination designed for teenagers and college students doesn't seem to be losing popularity. According to Facebook spokesman Chris Hughes, nearly 70 percent of the 12.4 million users login every day and spend-on average-18 minutes on the site. Nearly 15,000 new profiles are created daily. But it's not just a popular website allowing students to reconnect old friendships and send private messages-it's a way of life for image-conscious students, a world where relationship is virtual, and, on recent occasions, a surveillance tool for savvy university administrators.
Facebook began in February 2004 when a few Harvard students created the webpage for their friends. It started as a way for students in Cambridge, Mass., to find students with common interests. Today, nearly every major university has its own Facebook where students (and anyone with an official school e-mail address) can browse the profiles of their fellow classmates, check out pictures, join groups, and send private messages.
There are two big differences that separate it from other networking websites like MySpace.com and Xanga.com. Facebook isn't a blog-you can describe yourself by listing interests and hobbies and by posting pictures, but you can't keep a journal. Facebook also tends to be much more exclusive about what information is revealed.
Though users can customize their level of privacy, most students who use Facebook can check out profiles of anyone at their school. But to see the profile or photos of another student, they would first need to become Facebook friends-something that requires confirmation from the other person. "Facebook is not a place where a user meets a 'random' person, but instead where individuals foster acquaintance-ships or friendships that already exist," Mr. Hughes said.
William Denney, a freshman at the University of Mississippi, admits he used to be "addicted" to cruising through Facebook profiles of schoolmates he knew, barely knew, or knew not at all. "At first, if someone asked me to be their friend, I would accept it-even if I didn't know them." He compared reading a Facebook profile to checking out a baseball card. It has some information, some vital statistics (like phone numbers and majors) and maybe a picture or two.
"My typical login would last for about 30 minutes maybe two or three times a day," he said. "At first you've got to form your own identity-figure out who you are. The groups you join are a big part of that." He's in a group with fellow Kappa Alpha pledge brothers. Mr. Denney also belongs to six others groups that mostly serve to reinforce inside jokes among his friends.
What happens on Facebook? Not much, according to Mr. Denney and six other Facebook users WORLD interviewed. "I think it's all about accumulating friends and being in funny groups-that's the bottom line," said Mr. Denney, who has 408 Facebook friends. "You can create a false sense of popularity through your Facebook profile."
Some college administrators, though, have taken the website a bit more seriously than its patrons. Officials at the University of New Mexico imposed a four-month ban on Facebook until they were satisfied that it was a secure site. Students at North Carolina State University and the University of Kentucky have been charged with underage drinking violations based on pictures pulled out of Facebook photo albums.
Last year before the start of the fall semester, Facebook opened to high-school students with the intention of building the same school-specific networks. To limit the high-school Facebook population to actual high-school students, Facebook administrators gave some college students the right to invite some of their younger friends or siblings to join a high-school version of Facebook completely independent from the college edition. In turn, those charter members of the high-school edition would be able to invite 10 other friends to join their high school's Facebook.
Five months later, the site has become one of the top destinations for web-savvy teens. At Highland Park High School in suburban Dallas, almost 1,000 students own Facebook profiles-out of an enrollment of 1,979 students. Yet the site's student-only orientation made it a relative unknown to teachers and administrators. "I had never heard of it and neither have my assistant principals," Highland Park principal Patrick Cates said. "I tried to login, but I didn't have a password and I obviously hadn't been invited."
The intentions seem noble-by keeping it invitation only, stalkers and complete strangers who routinely patrolled profiles on MySpace and Xanga would be kept out behind a password-protected firewall. But it also keeps parents, principals, and teachers out, too. Based on interviews with seven Facebook users, the lack of prying eyes (from parents or the general public) actually fosters the site's popularity.
Free from the threat of surveillance, teens on high-school Facebook feel free to present themselves to their friends in unfiltered ways-much like the tone in a locker room or school lunch table. It didn't surprise Mr. Cates to learn a handful of his students had used Facebook to post pictures of themselves holding cans of Keystone Light-or that there were even three groups associated with his school touting Keystone Light, with a total of 65 members.
"Clearly we don't want our kids to have alcohol problems as they grow up," Mr. Cates said. "But if it's just a casual picture clearly not related to school, then we have zero jurisdiction. And, to be honest, zero interest." That's good news to facebookers scrolling through their self-contained universe.