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This hot new Web site connects 3.3 million students and counting. But will the information they share come back to haunt them?

click to enlarge Editors Note: This is not the profile of a real person, - but a conglomeration of information, taken as-is, from - numerous students at different schools.
  • Editors Note: This is not the profile of a real person, but a conglomeration of information, taken as-is, from numerous students at different schools.

Rachel Johnson plans to meet up with a friend she hasn't seen since kindergarten. With a few clicks of a mouse, the UCCS sophomore has reconnected not only with her preschool pal, but with many other friends from high school and middle school.

Johnson is one of more than 3.3 million students at 832 universities worldwide who are logging onto thefacebook.com, an online social directory that connects classmates and friends. Anyone with a university e-mail address can start an account and create a profile with a photo and, if desired, vast amounts of personal information: phone numbers, interests, classes, groups, relationship statuses, political views, friends. They then can access the same information of other students at their university, as well as that of other users they've accepted as their "friends" -- who sometimes actually are complete strangers.

From finding the name of the cute guy in economics class to locating fellow students with a Starbucks addiction, thefacebook is a voyeur's dream, an ocean of information.

Students appear more than willing to broadcast the most personal and intimate details of their lives to friends and strangers.

The information often is amusing. It also can open the door to serious privacy or stalking issues.

Late nights, bad food

Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg conceptualized thefacebook in the winter of 2004 as a way to transform Harvard's paper booklets with standard information for students into an interactive online directory where students could control their own profiles.

During many late-night sessions, Zuckerberg, 21, and his roommates brainstormed potential categories and other aspects of the site. Thefacebook spokesperson Chris Hughes describes the gatherings as "typical college students talking over bad Chinese food."

Thefacebook launched at Harvard on Feb. 4, 2004, and within three weeks, 6,000 students had joined.

The creators soon expanded to include Columbia, Yale and Stanford, and thefacebook is now a runaway success, accessed by students across the United States, Canada, Ireland, England and France.

Hughes declines to disclose thefacebook's current net worth, but Palo Alto-based firm Accel Partners recently invested $13 million in the site.

Already it's making an impact on students at Colorado Springs-area schools.

The United States Air Force Academy, which was added to the network on Nov. 13, now has more than 3,300 users. Colorado College, added Jan. 12, has more than 1,600 users, and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, added just three months ago, has nearly 900 users.

Many faces of thefacebook Unlike other online social networks such as myspace or friendster, most friends connecting through thefacebook are friends in real life, and many of thefacebook's groups are online representations of existing social and academic organizations, groups or cliques.

Hughes says he uses thefacebook to look up people whose names are dropped in conversation. He also has found friends who will be in New York and Buenos Aires, where he is visiting this summer.

Thefacebook also can be used to track down classmates to borrow notes, find out what parties are going on Friday night or give a reminder about a friend's birthday.

One night while surfing the site, CC student Tien Nguyen came across an unusual comment in a friend's profile. It read: "I will miss you forever. I'll never stop loving you. Rest in Peace." The comment was directed to her high school friend, Michael, whom she had lost touch with when she left for college.

click to enlarge Thefacebook founder Mark Zuckerberg began the site as - a way to provide a student-controlled directory at - Harvard. - COURTESY OF THEFACEBOOK.COM
  • Courtesy of thefacebook.com
  • Thefacebook founder Mark Zuckerberg began the site as a way to provide a student-controlled directory at Harvard.

She called her ex-boyfriend, who also had known Michael, and found out that he had hung himself in his closet only a week earlier.

If it hadn't been for thefacebook, "I never would have found out," Nguyen says.

Romancing the screen CC student Amy Reedy hadn't spoken to her ex-boyfriend from high school in years when she first noticed that he was a member of thefacebook.

Despite the fact that they'd "hated each other," Reedy sent him a note. They began messaging each other on a regular basis, and now they are dating again.

"It helped get us start talking again," Reedy says.

According to Hughes, thefacebook regularly receives letters from people who have used it to pursue romantic relationships or meet their significant other.

"'I saw her on facebook and we messaged each other and fell in love,'" says Hughes, paraphrasing a letter he recently received from a student who initially met his girlfriend at a meeting for the group Campus Crusade for Christ. "It's really amazing how often they come in along the same plotlines."

The casual nature of thefacebook makes approaching someone easier than it would be in person, over the phone or through routine e-mail interaction, Hughes says.

CC student Lauren Aczon agrees.

"It's a really non-confrontational way to communicate with somebody," she says. "If you have the option of calling someone or sending a facebook message, a lot of people will send a facebook message."

Risk baring your soul Despite its intrigue and popularity, there is a dark side to thefacebook.

According to Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel of the Electronic Information Privacy Center in San Francisco, many people, particularly young people, do not fully understand the risk of putting personal information online.

"The basic risk is that in disclosing personal info to a third party, one loses their constitutional right to privacy of the data," says Hoofnagle, who is not familiar with thefacebook specifically. "You're basically giving away your data, and you can't get it back."

According to thefacebook privacy policy, site operators may share information with third parties, including lawyers, government agencies or companies with which they have a relationship.

The only way users can prevent information from being shared with third parties for marketing purposes is to submit a request via e-mail. The option, however, is not specified under the individual privacy settings and is buried within the policy, so many students may not know they even have the option.

And it may not be difficult for personal data to reach the hands of university officials, employers or other information seekers.

In March, after posting a comment about assassinating President Bush and replacing him with a monkey onto the message board for thefacebook group "Bush Sucks," a student at the University of Oklahoma was investigated by the U.S. Secret Service.

The comment was reported to the feds by another student who interpreted it as a threat, OU's student newspaper reported.

click to enlarge UCCS sophomore Rachel Johnson uses thefacebook.com - to hook up with old and new friends, and to participate - in professor-bashing. - COURTESY OF RACHEL JOHNSON
  • Courtesy of Rachel Johnson
  • UCCS sophomore Rachel Johnson uses thefacebook.com to hook up with old and new friends, and to participate in professor-bashing.

Many students also don't realize that faculty and administrators can access group information on thefacebook.

Johnson, who is a member of a facebook group dedicated to bashing an unpopular psychology professor at UCCS, says her group allows students to swap stories, vent and warn others about the class. She does not think the professor is aware of the group.

But in a recent controversy at Northwestern University, Medill School of Journalism assistant professor Michele Weldon reprimanded students for creating and joining groups she found distasteful, including "The Alliance of Unethical Journalism" and "I Was Raped by My Medill Midterm."

"[Thefacebook] may be your generation's mode of communication, but my generation still controls the consequences," Weldon told a reporter from the university's student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern. "If you did this on a blog about a boss or source, you'd be fired."

Attracting stalkers Although he was unsure of specific instances, Hughes says he would not be surprised to hear of employers using thefacebook to find information about job applicants or current employees.

"It's not immune in a legal sense," Hughes says, adding that students are responsible for what they say, just as they would be in an e-mail or a public comment.

It also is possible for users to be sued if they make any libelous comments.

Hughes has heard from students at four or five different universities regarding faculty and administrators trying to build cases for alcohol or drug violations by using student information from thefacebook.

As of yet, thefacebook has received no subpoenas or court orders for user information.

Another concern is the possibility of attracting or feeding information to stalkers.

"If you're the victim of domestic violence or you're being stalked, the first approach is to limit the visibility of your personal information," Hoofnagle says. "But once you have placed your information online, it becomes very difficult to recall or shield that information from others."

A friend of Nguyen's, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was contacted by a stranger with the same last name via thefacebook. He memorized the information on her profile and then began to call her. She agreed to meet him once, but even after that, he continued to follow her around. After she ignored him for a while, he finally left her alone.

UCCS student John Austin Simonson also has heard rumors about a student who was able to stalk a girl by finding out her phone number, room number and information about her friends on thefacebook.

"A lot of people put too much [information], thinking that it's just their friends looking," CC student Reedy says.

Hughes insists, however, that stalking is not a major problem.

"Stalking [of a serious nature] happens a lot less frequently than people think, just because the term is such a broad one," Hughes says. "It can mean looking up someone in a class who you think is cute, or it can mean serious stalking.

"People are always concerned, as they should be when they use the Internet, with their information being mishandled."

Users, Hughes says, can adjust their privacy settings to limit access to their profile to friends, students at their school, faculty or anyone within one degree of separation from their friends.

click to enlarge CCs Lauren Aczon reaps loads of friend requests from - the Air Force Academy. - COURTESY OF LAUREN ACZON
  • Courtesy of Lauren Aczon
  • CCs Lauren Aczon reaps loads of friend requests from the Air Force Academy.

Most of the complaints thefacebook operators receive relate to obscene photographs, inappropriate groups and excessive or offensive messaging. Thefacebook receives nearly 100 messages per day about offensive information or privacy issues, Hughes says.

Depending on the severity of the offense, thefacebook will send the user a warning or take him or her off the network. Users are taken off the network on a daily basis.

Calling all strangers In response to privacy concerns, Johnson acknowledges that posting personal information is always risky.

"For me, the information I put obviously I'm comfortable with people seeing," she says.

A lot of the contact information available on thefacebook that potentially could be used for stalking is available anyway, Hughes claims, in phone books and college directories.

Either way, it's not unusual for students to be contacted by complete strangers.

Aczon says several boys she does not know at the Air Force Academy have requested to be her friend.

"They'll see a picture of an attractive girl and they think maybe they'll be my 'friend,'" Aczon says. "I just think it's kind of weird."

Simonson has noticed the same thing happening to his friends.

"The guys at the Air Force Academy ask to be friends with every girl they can find, whether they know them or not," Simonson says. "I know one guy who had 350 friends, and I'm sure that he didn't know all of them."

Nguyen has a name for these friend-desperate stranger-seekers: "facebook sluts."

Messages from strangers, however, are not always unwelcome.

Johnson has taken the initiative to contact strangers with similar interests on thefacebook, and many have become her real-life friends.

Online addiction With increased use of thefacebook, it's unclear whether online interaction helps or hinders personal interaction.

"You feel like you're getting to know someone without actually going out and meeting with them," says Aczon, who spends five to 10 minutes at least five times per week on the site. "There's no risk of putting [yourself] out there. There's no rejection involved."

Many students tell of friends or acquaintances who spend countless hours looking through profiles and groups or compulsively checking for new messages and friend requests.

"It's pretty addictive," says Reedy, who initially refused to join.

Of its 3 million-plus users, 60 percent are logged on at least once every 24 hours.

"I think that if people are using facebook in excessive amounts, that's symptomatic and indicative of issues that are happening in peoples' lives," Hughes says.

However, he admits the online pheomenon has a type of addictive property.

"It's a snapshot of a person's identity and life, and that's intriguing."

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