Putting your best face forward?

Facebook offers online friendships, danger
— by Brian J. Bowe

These days, students at Grand Valley are apt to spend their time poking and tagging each other, not to mention writing on each other’s walls. But it’s not as mean as it might sound. That’s the language of a Web site called Facebook, which  — along with other social networking Web sites like MySpace — is revolutionizing the way students communicate with each other. Facebook allows users to create profile pages, join online groups, and keep tabs on what their friends are up to. It provides students a vehicle to interact with each other in a whole new way. But it’s also unleashing a whole new series of dangers for users to grapple with. Use of the site is pervasive at Grand Valley. “It’s as necessary as a student e-mail account," said Student Senate President Frank Foster. Launched in 2004, Facebook has more than 11 million users across more than 40,000 school-related, work-related, and regional networks. In a recent study by the firm Student Monitor that earned wide media coverage, Facebook was tied with beer for second place among college students as the most “in” thing, with 71 percent of students mentioning it. The No. 1 spot was held by iPods.

Keeping Connected

Jazmine Williams, a senior communications major from Detroit, said she has been using Facebook for about two years.

“I was reluctant to get on at first, because I don’t like to follow trends,” Williams said.

She said she finds it a useful tool for finding like-minded people. Williams has started several Facebook groups, including one for Detroiters, one celebrating natural hair and a humorous one about student housing.

“I get a lot of information about what’s happening on campus and in the world on Facebook,” Williams said.

In fact, Williams said she gets much of her news via Facebook. For example, in the run-up to the November election, Williams said she got a lot of information about the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative and the campaign for governor. In fact, both Gov. Jennifer Granholm and her challenger Dick DeVos had official campaign Facebook sites.

“It made a difference for both of them to be on Facebook,” Williams said, adding that it made it easy to compare the candidates’ stances on issues. Williams was one of the organizers behind a large rally in April 2006 to protest several incidents of hate speech on campus. Word of the rally spread to Facebook and helped swell the crowd’s numbers.  

“We honestly didn’t mean for it to spread like that,” said Williams. But she acknowledged that Facebook attracted many students who might not have known about it otherwise.

“I really think Facebook was one of the reasons that the rally was so diverse,” said Williams, noting that at first the incidents were only known within the affected communities.

Foster said Student Senate uses it because it’s a useful way to keep in touch with students who aren’t otherwise active on campus. “People check their Facebook every day, you see people at the kiosks checking it,” he said.

Students Nicole Gauche, foreground, and Kristine Kozlowski check their Facebook sites on computers in the Kirkhof Center.

photo by Courtney Newbauer

Underlying Dangers

Much of the content a casual Facebook viewer finds depicts benign situations — students hanging out with friends, being social. But it doesn’t take much looking to find content a little farther on the wild side. There are groups celebrating marijuana use or advocating “for more bars within stumbling distance of the Allendale Campus.” Photos may show a rousing game of beer pong or some, ahem, intimate touching.

Is it just harmless college hijinks? Perhaps — but try telling that to prospective employers.
That’s the message Police Academy director Billy Wallace was trying to share with students recently when he treated a class to a looping PowerPoint presentation of photos of themselves in compromising situations culled from Facebook. Many were surprised that Wallace had access to their photos of drinking and debauchery.

When he checked 24 hours later, Wallace
said every single one of the sites had been taken down.

“They learned an immediate lesson,” he said.

Wallace said law enforcement agencies can reject candidates on the basis of “moral character” — something that could be called into question by crude Internet postings.
“There was nothing so egregious that I could say it was a criminal offense,” Wallace said. “I couldn’t prove it was illegal behavior, but it was inappropriate behavior. I used that in the interview process, and I also used it in the determination of moral character.”

When Foster was elected to Student Senate, his own Facebook site came under scrutiny. He deactivated it to eliminate content that some found objectionable. Foster said his experience served as a wake-up call, and he worked with the Office of Student Life to create an educational flyer called “Face the Facts.” That flyer will be distributed to all incoming freshmen as part of the Transitions program.

As for Foster, he didn’t have a Facebook account for about seven months, but then decided to rejoin when his cousin in Colorado got one. “There’s a big part of Facebook that’s about keeping in contact with friends and family,” said Foster.

Getting the Word Out

The message is that students need to be careful about how much information they share with others online. Michelle Burke, associate director of Student Life, said her office uses Facebook as a tool for screening prospective employees.

“We check the Facebook page of any student who applies to work in the Office of Student Life, or who applies for internships or leadership positions such as Transition Leader,” Burke said. “Sometimes the information is objectionable enough to not even consider the student for a leadership role, but usually it is an otherwise ‘good’ student trying to look cool to their peers. Facebook information is discussed with the student, and often they will change the page. They are usually not aware of how public Facebook is. Each occasion has been a great learning experience for students about professionalism and the power of the Internet.”

Like many other politicians and celebrities, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm maintains a Facebook site. Burke said Student Life is working to educate new students and student leaders.

“With new students, we want them to understand the privacy issues and dangers related to putting all their information online. With student leaders, we discuss Facebook in the context of professionalism and networking,” she said. “The handout and program highlight ways students can make a poor impression on groups they may want to join in college, as well as potential employers.”

Sue Korzinek, Grand Valley’s director of Information Technology, worries that students are not thinking of the future. Even though students can delete their profiles, Korzinek said that is not a guarantee that the information has disappeared.

“It’s backed up, it’s kept on some other
server somewhere. It’s not something that you can necessarily assure that it’s gone — even if you remove it. You’re not really in control," Korzinek said.<

Usually, though, Facebook indiscretions don’t cause permanent damage — unless the behavior is repeated.
“Everyone makes mistakes. Nobody’s perfect,” Wallace said. “As long as it’s not something that is criminal, I think they can learn from it. I think they can correct their behavior and move past it.”

The key, according to Williams, sounds simple enough. “I’m careful about what I put on Facebook. I don’t understand people who aren’t,” she said. “I try not to post things that I don’t want other people to know.”

Page last modified March 17, 2014