Social networking in the digital ageJan. 15, 2007

Checking out profiles in the Kreitzberg library.

photo by Jay Ericson Checking out Facebook profiles in the Kreitzberg Library.

Faced with a 175-mile cross-New England trek for her first year at college, Caitlin Torrance did what many millennial generation kids faced with similar situations do: she logged on and began networking.

Accepted as an architecture student at Norwich this past summer, the Waterboro, Maine, native said it was important for her to make connections with other students prior to arriving on The Hill. Her first moves: boot up the pc, fire up a browser and surf over to Facebook, a social networking Web site that facilitates connections between folks who have a ".edu" email address. And it paid off.

“Over the summer I did a search for people at Norwich and I kept [the search limited to] first-year students and architecture students, because I'm an architecture student, and I wound up meeting quite a few people,” Torrance said. “I didn't know it at the time, but I wound up meeting my best friend through Facebook. I was at orientation and I saw her there and I was like, ‘hey, I know you.’”

Torrance's story is echoed on college campuses across the nation, Norwich included. Launched in 2004, Facebook has seen meteoric growth with the company reporting 14 million registered users, over half of whom log in daily. Similar to other social networking services on the Web such as MySpace and Friendster, Facebook users can create profiles, post information and pictures, create and join groups with like-minded individuals and interact with other users on the site.

According to Norwich senior Andrew Liptak, Facebook has helped to boost membership and facilitate communication between members of the Norwich University Tactical Society (NUTS), an on-campus club for those interested in games, science fiction and fantasy. Liptak, who created the NUTS group on Facebook, said the services available at the site have been useful and have had an impact on the social experience on campus.

“It’s made it easy to get messages out to club members and to let people know about events,” he said. “And one of the reasons it’s called Facebook is because with a person’s profile picture you can kind of see them, learn about their interests, you know it kind of quantifies them.”

But the use of social networking sites isn’t all roses. On a personal level, Liptak said it’s easy to waste hours of time reading profiles and group messages, and he’s now making a “conscious effort” to curb his Facebook use. Worse still, the opportunity for increased spam and random instant messages increased for Liptak substantially when he had a MySpace profile, a service the history major said he no longer uses.

Spam and wasted time are, however, relatively minor threats. One larger concern, according to recent studies conducted at Purdue University, is that employers are now actively using sites such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and others to investigate job candidates’ true characters. Findings from the research were printed in the Summer 2006 NACE Journal, a publication of the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Purdue’s researchers, the article states, found that “…50 percent of employers surveyed reported using some sort of online technology to screen candidates, and 7 percent said they do not currently use this screening method, but plan to start.”

And that screening method, said Tony Cannavale, an information technology recruiter working with Spherion in Boston, will hurt job seekers.

“As a recruiter, I definitely Google people,” Cannavale said in a telephone interview. “And it’s pretty standard practice in the industry right now. I tell recent college graduates that if you're in the job market and you have a profile online, you shouldn't have crazy stuff in it. It doesn’t hurt to have a profile, but if you put up ‘hi my name is John and I like to drink lots of beer,’ it's probably not going to help you too much.”

Norwich University’s Distance Learning Librarian, Meredith Farkas, repeated what many employers and job recruiters across the country are saying.

“I think anyone that doesn’t Google a job candidate nowadays is crazy,” Farkas said.

Moreover, Farkas said students need to realize that while social networking tools can be quite beneficial to the educational experience, there are consequences for inappropriate online action. And this, Farkas said, must be explained and made clear to students.

“The possibilities of what we could be doing with these tools in terms of the educational materials we could offer online are tremendous, but we also have an obligation to educate students about the dark side of social software and the consequences that can result from the inappropriate use of those tools,” she said. “I think showing students some of the object lessons that are out there, showing them things that have happened to other students at other universities as a result of using these tools will have an impact.”

Specifically, students who’ve posted inappropriate and illegal information on such sites are subject to disciplinary and legal repercussions. In a November 2006 story published in Inside Purdue, Purdue University’s Associate Dean of Students for Activities and Organizations, Pablo Malevenda, recounted two recent incidents involving inappropriate postings. In the first, students attending the University of Wisconsin were cited by police in February of 2006 when photos of stolen street signs were noticed on Facebook. Four months prior to this, underage students at Northern Kentucky University were subject to fines and a year-long probation for posting pictures of themselves drinking in the school’s dorms.

Time wasted, spam, job offers rescinded, legal troubles; the laundry list of consequences that can result from a less-than-judicious approach to the use of social networking software goes on and on. Sadly, sitting at the top of that list is the 800-pound gorilla that all users should take notice of: physical harm.

On Jan. 9, 2007, the Associated Press reported that a Pawtucket, R.I. man was scheduled to be arraigned in court the following Tuesday for his alleged involvement in a Dec. 30 sexual assault. According to police, 26-year-old Jack Appiah, along with Henry Duah, 20, and Gabriel Clarke, 21, all of Pawtucket, allegedly drugged and raped a 17-year-old Attleboro, Mass., girl whom Appiah had befriended on MySpace over the summer. Similar stories are all to prevalent as an increasing number of users have logged on and posted information — photos, age, sex, address, email — that can make them an easy target for predators.

“I know a lot of people who refer to Facebook as stalkerbook, now,” Liptak said when asked about safety issues related to the use of social networking sites.

Although Norwich officials haven’t seen any physical harm come as a result of online profiles, there are students who have posted personal information on the Web that doesn't exactly portray them in the best light. And according to Farkas, students should be aware of this and understand that that information is out there for the world to see.

“If most of them knew that the professors and deans were looking at this stuff,” Farkas said, “I think they'd be a little more careful.”

As for Liptak, he’ll still use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and fellow NUTS members, but he does have a word of caution:

“I think people need to be careful about it and just in general about the Internet,” Liptak said. “I think maybe people lose focus that this is still the Internet; that you can still lose your identity and you can still [post] something that can have serious repercussions down the road.”