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Facebook filled with interest and ignorance

“But how will I know if I have friends?” said first-year Sara-Anne Lee half-jokingly when she discovered that facebook.com was down for a day last week.

Lee is not alone in her reliance on Facebook — by late 2005, nearly 70 percent of Carnegie Mellon undergraduates had profiles on facebook.com.

A Donner Hall community discussion last Tuesday focused on the astonishingly popular social networking website. Junior Pat Malatack, the Donner Hall Community Advisor, kicked off a new discussion series with a talk about the issues regarding Facebook.

Malatack, a double major in human-computer interaction and cognitive science, hopes that a community dialogue will help his residents learn from each other, especially about something as important as internet safety.

“I chose Facebook because there is a lot of interest and there is a lot of ignorance,” Malatack said, indicating that news sources like USA Today and The New York Times are starting to cover privacy issues brought about by Facebook.

Tuesday’s discussion focused on several major issues, including the possibility that Facebook users are unaware of just how many people have access to the information and images they post.
Employers such as Bose, Inc. have started looking at Facebook profiles before they hire employees, Malatack told students in the discussion.

“Questions [employers] are not allowed to ask you, sexual preference, what country you are from … they can find out on Facebook,” said Rowshan Palmer, coordinator of student development and housefellow of Donner. “I’d like to believe that’s not how they would use it, but they could.”

Bose, however, is not the only company scoping college students out. According to Malatack, Facebook sells all of its information to advertisers at a hefty price and any advertiser that pays for ad space on Facebook has free reign over all Facebook profiles.

He also noted the difficulty in keeping information safe from advertisers.

“You can choose not to have your information sold, but, as someone at the discussion said, you have to go through seven different links to get there and then click something that doesn’t look like a hyperlink,” Malatack said in an interview after the discussion.

Communications giant Viacom certainly understands how valuable the information on Facebook is. According to the March 28 Business Week article “Facebook for Sale; But $2 billion?,” Viacom offered the owners of Facebook $750 million for their creation.

Facebook rejected the offer; they want $2 billion.

Businesses are not the only institutions using Facebook to look at what students are doing and saying. Many universities are monitoring their students as well.

According to a report by Brock Read titled “Think Before You Share” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ohio State University officials used Facebook to apprehend students after football rioting last October.

The university’s assistant director of police received a tip that students had posted pictures online of friends storming the field. After logging onto Facebook, the campus police found a group of students who had rushed the field.

According to Read, it only took a few days and a few clicks of the mouse for campus police to identify the offenders and refer about 50 students to the university’s office of judicial affairs.

Loyola University Chicago even went so far as to ban certain students from being on Facebook. According to Malatack, all of Loyola’s athletes were told to get rid of their Facebook profiles if they wanted to keep playing. Loyola’s concern was that statements or pictures on Facebook could implicate their athletes in activities that violate the code of conduct every athlete signs upon matriculation to the university.

A USA Today article from earlier this month indicates that Florida State University has joined Loyola in banning athletes from Facebook.

Currently, Carnegie Mellon University does not use Facebook to investigate students, and both Palmer and Malatack agree that they do not foresee the University using it in the future.

Palmer, who occasionally accesses Facebook to look students up, says that she encourages students not to be careless on their Facebook accounts.

“I may have a conversation with them and ask if they are aware of who has access to this,” Palmer said, voicing concern that Facebook profiles may be making first impressions on behalf of the users. “Is this the image you want to put out there?”

Palmer, Malatack, and those who attended the Donner discussion are not the only ones who are interested in Facebook at Carnegie Mellon.

In 2005, professors Alessandro Acquisti of the Heinz School and Ralph Gross of the School of Computer Science published a report titled “Information Revelation and Privacy in Online Social Networks” with Facebook as their prime example. Acquisti and Gross researched thousands of Carnegie Mellon Facebook users.

“In our study of more than 4000 CMU users of the Facebook, we have quantified individuals’ willingness to provide large amounts of personal information in an online social network, and we have shown how unconcerned its users appear to privacy risks,” the report stated.

“Based on the information they provide online, users expose themselves to various physical and cyber risks, and make it extremely easy for third parties to create digital dossiers of their behavior.”

Though their work is not done, Acquisti and Gross attributed such behavior on the part of students to a number of different sources. They explain that users may publish personal information “because the benefits they expect from public disclosure surpass its perceived costs.”

“Peer pressure and herding behavior may also be influencing factors, and so also myopic privacy attitudes and the sense of protection offered by the (perceived) bounds of a campus community,” Acquisti and Gross stated.

Malatack and Palmer are not concerned that students are currently any more or less unruly than they have ever been, but the advent of websites like Facebook and Myspace means that there is digital documentation of the choices that a particular user makes.

Palmer, however, would have people focus on the better aspects of Facebook as well.

“Facebook has created a huge social web. There is no way you could do this by just walking around meeting people,” Palmer said.

Malatack agreed.

“We shouldn’t focus on the bad. There is a lot of good,” he said, explaining that as a CA, he often uses Facebook to get to know his residents and advertise his community events.

Malatack used Facebook to advertise Tuesday’s discussion.