Cleaning Up Their Online Acts

Colleges warn students that their Web sites could endanger their job prospects and Supreme Court nominations.
October 3, 2005

Last year, three students had to face the University of Mississippi’s judicial system after campus police officers found out they had created a group on the Facebook, an online network for college students, that consisted of people who wanted to sleep with a particular professor.

So when a student asked Thomas Reardon, dean of students at Ole Miss, for a recommendation, he decided to take a spin through Facebook. Sure enough, he found the student had posted something that "lacked judgment," he said. Reardon still wrote the recommendation, but he "felt obligated to call the student in and tell him about it."

For a generation of students who grew up with blogs, online journals, and peer-to-peer sites, the Internet has become an arena to write, post and link all the things they might not be able to express normally. The difficulty now, for some, is realizing that, more and more, their “peers” include professors, administrators, prospective employers, and sometimes law enforcement personnel. Whereas administrators used to tell students to take the “Hey dude” messages off their answering machines during job hunting seasons, now some students are being told to watch their digital profiles.

"The idea that people might be accountable in the real world," said David Papiasvili, a junior at Columbia University, “that’s a little scary.” Papiasvili started the Facebook group “Adderall you’re breaking my heart,” and said he enjoys online forums because people can feel free to be creative. He knows now, though, that even though Facebook groups are supposed to be specific to the college of the student that created them, other people are finding methods of digital eavesdropping. A New York Times reporter probed the Adderall group for sources for a recent article on drugs, such as Adderall, that students take while cramming. Papiasvili said one member of the group was upset to find the article used her first name, after she had specifically asked not to be named.

Like that student, others are learning the hard way that they are not creating private online lives, but are publishing for the world to see. Alwina Bennett, assistant dean of students at Brandeis University, was surprised when students started asking her if she would be their “friend” on Facebook. Bennett did not think she had an account, but quickly found out that a student had created one for her. She tracked the student down. “He was a little abashed,” she said, “and he gave me the password.”

Bennett noted that Facebook “does sell your information,” and said she has gotten an inordinate number “of offers in different languages to enlarge my penis” since taking control of her Facebook account. Brandeis now has an hour-long orientation that tells freshmen that “when you click ‘go,’ you lose control of this. We have an obligation to educate ourselves and them about this,” Bennett added. At the orientation, technology staff members tell students how non-secure peer-to-peer sites really are, and that people have lost their jobs over blogs.

Michele Weldon, assistant professor in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, noticed that former students she had had in class were blogging about their internships. “They’d put their name, where they worked, and how they had fun … dancing on tables,” Weldon said. It wasn’t Weldon’s first run-in with potentially explosive content. Last winter, Weldon found some “hurtful, and possibly libelous” Facebook groups that students in her class had started, including one entitled, “I was raped by my Medill midterm.”

As Weldon browsed other groups, she said she found content that criticized and perhaps “incited violence” toward specific professors and students. (A Facebook spokesman, Chris Hughes, wrote in an e-mail that “if any user does use the network inappropriately, we throw that person off the network.”) But Weldon said nothing happened when she complained to Facebook administrators. When Weldon wrote an e-mail to her students warning them they could be sued for such content, some apologized, but among others “the retaliation was remarkable,” she said, noting that someone created a site about her that was “very sexual in nature,” she said.

In one extreme case, a student at the University of Oklahoma was investigated by the Secret Service after posting a comment about assassinating the president on the Facebook group: “Bush Sucks.” Earlier, this year, a Grinnell College student was tossed in the slammer and charged with a felony for a post in a chat forum that invited (jokingly and totally not seriously, according to the student and his friends) students to kill the police who were making drug busts on campus. Facebook employees have said in reports that administrators at a few universities have sought to charge students with drug violations based on their postings on Facebook.

Kenneth Elmore, dean of students at Boston University, said he doesn’t want to police the Internet, but has begun talking to students about how their posts could come back to haunt them. “We’re in the process of confirming a chief justice, and this guy is dealing with things he wrote when he was a student,” Elmore said. “We live in a world now where a future Supreme Court nominee is just going to get Googled to death.” Elmore said he “wouldn’t want to gum up” the free communication that people have online, but added that he might have to if a student or parent came to him with blog material about a resident adviser and said “look at this picture, this violates the very reason for this person’s job,” Elmore said. “There should be a discussion about whether they should continue as an employee. You work for the university, you are an ambassador for the university.”

A lot of students hope, though, that professors and employers realize online forums should not be taken so seriously. Joe Williams, a 2004 Cornell University alum, said he understands that peer-to-peer sites “give this air of exclusivity, like a country club,” but that, as far as the possible viewers, “we might as well be on national television.” Williams is in the group called “I’ve kissed [name of a specific student]." “I don’t know if I kissed her,” he said, “we hung out a bunch of times wasted.” He said that the idea that “there are a million pages out there, why would anybody come across this one?” is part of the risk, but also part of the fun.

Students would prefer to keep just the fun. “I think it's pretty lame that people are using the Facebook as a substantial indicator of someone's personality,” said Anna Posner, a Columbia University senior who started the group called, “We like to have hott sex in Butler [Library] and then get coffee from Blue Java.”  “Facebook is supposed to be…irreverent,” she said. “I'd be mortified if someone seriously asked me if I liked to have sex in Butler and then get coffee from Blue Java.”

Still, some students seem to be setting themselves up for disaster. A “live journal” from Jen, a University of Iowa junior, described Jen’s fear about a dream in which her boyfriend, Cole, found and read her live journal. “I’m thinking about making this friends only,” she writes about the blog which is open not only to Cole, but to the world.

Brandeis's Bennett decided to open herself up to Facebook, since she had an account anyway. She does have some Facebook friends, but said “I’m of an age where I understand what it means to make friends. Listening to the same band doesn’t substitute for finding out about family, dreams, and hopes.” Added Williams, simply, “I’ve added friends I don’t even know, because rejection feels mean. One buddy is pissing in a trashcan in his picture.”


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