UC Berkeley News
Web Feature

UC Berkeley Web Feature

Online social networks boost friendships, and perhaps risks

– The explosion of membership at social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace is helping young people make friends online, but it also poses challenges for universities concerned about the dangers to students of posting intimate details of their lives on the World Wide Web.

Students' profiles and photos, for instance, can be accessed by everyone from prospective employers to stalkers.

The consequences of online social networking were explored Monday at a UC Berkeley symposium attended by some 100 student advisers and counselors from UC Berkeley and another 50 from other Northern California colleges and universities.

Keynote speaker Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of the Palo Alto-based Facebook, which boasts 7 million members and is restricted to users with academic e-mail addresses, extolled the practical virtues of Internet communities, but warned of the consequences of documenting unlawful activity on the Web.

"People should not be posting pictures of themselves doing illegal things, anywhere" said Zuckerberg, who started Facebook when he was a student at Harvard University as a way to get to know more about his fellow students and make friends.

Typically, a user creates a bio that includes photos and interests, and joins a group of friends. Detailed profile information is restricted to members of the user's educational institution or "accepted" friends. They can grade their teachers, write a journal or find other MySpace or Facebook members who are enrolled in their courses.

Advisers and counselors at the "Social Networking and Online Communities: What Student Affairs Professionals Should Know" event expressed concern about the potential abuses of social networking technology. But student panelists said that while young people should be made aware of the risks, the dangers are overblown. They also asked that their schools not snoop on them.

"It's an invasion of privacy," said Khadija A. Coakley, a Berkeley economics major and former Cal basketball player who uses Facebook to catch up with friends at universities around the country. She likened university monitoring of online profiles to a mother going through her daughter's dresser drawers.

Not that university officials and others who work with students are snooping, said Troy Gilbert, acting director of residential and academic programs for UC Berkeley's Office of Student Development. But what are they to do when students come to them with print-outs of fellow students' profiles and pictures as evidence of wrongdoing?

"When we have pictures online of students who are doing things that could be a danger to themselves . or are harmful or violating policy, how do we address that? This is a new venue," Gilbert said.

Student panelist Coakley said she is not a "native" (someone who grew up using online networking technology), but signed on with Facebook because so many of her friends were members. She checks her account two or three times a day, but knows people who check in eight or 10 times a day.

When she first joined Facebook, she said, she didn't post a photo, and as a result didn't attract many friends. As soon as she did post a photo, she said the response tripled or quadrupled. It was an "automatic self-esteem booster . you want to be popular," she added. She said users go so far as to learn HTML and Javascript just to improve their Web pages. Some campus computer labs, she noted, have even blocked Facebook and MySpace because so many students are hogging the machines for this purpose.

It is hard to say how many students belong to online social networking communities, but it's clear the number is growing exponentially, particularly among high school students. Facebook has members from all 4-year colleges and universities in the country - 85 percent of the undergraduate population - and receives 1.5 million photos a day. Zuckerberg said that, on average, members log in 18 minutes a day.

"We are clearly entering a new realm where the development of technology is outpacing our ability to keep up with it," Genaro Padilla, UC Berkeley vice chancellor for student affairs, said at the conference.

Zuckerberg said Facebook promotes more efficient communication between friends, allowing users to interact on their own schedules - usually in the late evenings - instead of trying to coordinate face-to-face meetings. But essentially, he said, no major lifestyle changes are being made.

"People are doing online exactly what they're doing offline. The only reason they're doing it online is because it's more efficient," Zuckerberg said.

It's also habit-forming, student panelists said.

"I know a student who swore off MySpace for Lent," said Bonnie Sugiyama, a graduate student in educational technology at California State University, Sacramento.

Panelist Tony Wang, a philosophy major at Stanford University, recounted how his buddy during their sophomore year got a flirtatious message from a Facebook member. It wasn't until they met that the friend discovered she was a high school student who had received a Stanford University e-mail address while attending a university summer program. They're still going out.

"There's been a lot of fear about harassment and stalker issues, but I haven't had to deal with that," said Wang, who has been a resident assistant in one of the Stanford residence halls.

While he agrees that universities are struggling with how to monitor online social networking, Wang would like to see the websites be safe havens, away from snitches and snoops. "Just because it's on the World Wide Web doesn't mean that students shouldn't have some reasonable expectation of privacy," he said.

Gilbert says this gap in perception about privacy needs to be addressed, and that the conference helped student affairs professionals learn more about this popular online culture.

"In a student's mind, posting a picture on Facebook is no different than pasting a picture in a personal scrapbook," he said. "In our mind, it's like posting it on a public bulletin board on campus."

The symposium kicked off a three-day gathering for undergraduate advisers and counselors - the 15th annual Berkeley Advising Conference - that is addressing a wide variety of academic and student development issues. It is being sponsored by the campus's Division of Student Affairs, Division of Undergraduate Education, Business and Administrative Services, the Graduate Division and the College of Letters & Science. The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Region VI Northern California also sponsored the social networking symposium.