BURLINGTON -- Flipping through the college Facebook used to be a great way to get to know your classmates. But the 2-year-old campus-based social networking website -- www.facebook.com -- may occasionally provide a little too much information.
The site, which has more than seven million users at 2100 colleges and universities and 22,000 high schools nationwide, is open only to people with email addresses ending in .edu. And only members of a school's real community can browse its virtual facebook community and interest groups: people who ride bikes, for example, or math majors.
Or so it seems. In reality, parents, employers, law enforcement officers and journalists can easily sneak a peek at what students are posting to the site. And that's landed some University of Vermont students in hot water. Kids seeking props from their peers will do the darndest things.
For example, one UVM Facebook group calls itself "I go to UVM and I smoke trees." Its profile photo shows a marijuana plant posed in front of an American flag. More than 250 students have joined. Click on their profile thumbnails and you can usually find their names, interests, email addresses and dorm room numbers. It's startlingly easy to find snapshots of students smoking pot; some of them look as if they're taking bong hits in their dorm rooms. One woman in the group uses a picture of a few dank clumps of weed as her profile photo.
Publishing such incriminating evidence on the Internet is clearly unwise, especially since students aren't the only ones who have access to the site. UVM faculty and staff also have uvm.edu email addresses, and can create their own accounts; UVM Chief of Police Gary Margolis has one.
That means information posted to Facebook is essentially public, says Stacey Miller, UVM's director of Residential Life. Earlier this year, Miller had to dismiss a student Residential Advisor because of photos posted to Facebook that showed the R.A. violating campus policies. "Students think they're having these private conversations with each other," Miller observes, "and they're really not."
UVM administrators aren't the only ones grappling with this issue. Campus newspapers across the country are running stories about students who have been disciplined for posting material to the site. Earlier this month, a student at Arizona State University who was pictured in photos on Facebook holding beer and pot in his dorm got evicted from on-campus housing.
Miller says UVM doesn't officially monitor the site. "We're not checking up on them," she says. But, Miller adds, "it's widely used to see what's going on in school culture."
Miller and her staff have actually investigated three R.A.s this year for objectionable Facebook postings; two of them were allowed to remain on the job. In each case, she says, Res Life acted on a tip from another student. "It usually is brought to our attention by a third party," she reports, "usually a disgruntled resident who's been cited by the R.A. Unfortunately we have to follow up on those situations."
That may be how campus police found out about "John," a UVM undergraduate who posted a photo to Facebook in which he appeared to be smoking pot. John, who spoke about his case on the condition that he remain anonymous, says the cops came to his door at 2 a.m. to confront him with the photo. He ended up in a court-diversion program, and is under suspension for the rest of his tenure at UVM.
He writes in an email that he has since cleaned up his act. "Basically my advice would just be for everyone to remember that the Internet is public domain," he writes. "Local, state, and federal law enforcement are watching."
Apparently employers are eyeing the site, too. Jonathan Bove, a UVM grad student in higher education, runs R.A. trainings. He tells students about a friend at Rochester Institute of Technology who worked as an intern for Intel. When it came time to choose the next round of interns, the company asked him to scan applicants' Facebook pages.
"One of those students had some kind of racy photos of him doing some typical college stuff," Bove recalls. He says the company chose someone else instead.
Parents are now scanning the site, too. Miller says she's gotten numerous calls this year from parents who have looked up their kids' future roommates on Facebook. Some parents have demanded a switch because the roommate doesn't like the right music, or is gay.
Miller, sounding exasperated, dubs Facebook "the devil."
But Elaine Young, an associate professor at Champlain College, disagrees with that assessment. Young teaches students about sites such as Facebook and MySpace in her e-business marketing classes. She says the networks are extremely useful tools for marketers, and even for students looking to connect with like-minded individuals they might not otherwise meet.
Young argues that educators need to learn more about the sites, so they can help students avoid making fools of themselves online. "We have to be able to explain it, as faculty and teachers," she says. She notes that Champlain will be offering a course next fall that examines and critiques online social networking sites. Young is also planning a workshop for parents at orientation, to show them how students can use social networking sites as an extension of their resumes.
"If young people are jumping on this and using it," Young says, "we can't just shut the students off from it."