It's not surprising that social-networking Web sites such as Facebook.com and MySpace.com are all the rage among today's college students — but those same hard-partying young people might want to watch what they post about themselves if they want to become tomorrow's buttoned-down corporate employees.
Whether it's for keeping in touch with friends or rating professors' classroom performances, there's little students can't find out about in their communities by using such networks.
"Indications are that social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.com are very popular among Berkeley students," said Suzanne Helbig, marketing coordinator and career counselor at the University of California, Berkeley.
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MySpace, which is open to the general public, has over 95 million registered users, and was the second most-trafficked domain on the Internet behind Yahoo! in June 2006, according to the analysts at comScore Media Metrix. According to a spokesperson, it adds an average of 230,000 members per day.
Facebook, which is limited to high schoolers, college students and employees of certain companies, boasts over 7.5 million registered users and is the seventh most trafficked site in the U.S.
Both Web sites, along with competitors such as Friendster, Xanga and Orkut, are online networking communities that allow people to connect with friends by sending messages, joining groups or posting pictures and comments on a user's "wall."
Another site, RateMyProfessor.com, also connects students by letting them help each other choose courses each semester.
As its name implies, the site allows students to rate professors based on personal experiences. Differently colored faces next to a teacher's name indicate good, medium and poor ratings — and if there's a picture of a tamale, that means the instructor's good-looking.
Sample negative reviews posted on the Web site include "His class was like milk, it was good for 2 weeks"; "BORING! But I learned there are 137 tiles on the ceiling"; and "She hates you already."
"RateMyProfessor helps me to find the easiest and nicest professors," said Travis Musolf, an education major at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Along with most other students he knows, Musolf uses RateMyProfessor every time he schedules classes, and could recall only one instance in which a professor with a positive review "did not turn out to be good at all."
"I heard rumors that teachers go on and mess around with their own ratings, so you don't always know who's posting comments," said Musolf. "I think you need the average student to give a proper rating for a teacher, since it could be skewed."
Debra Greene, a history professor at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., takes a more jaundiced view. She sees RateMyProfessor as merely a toy for students.
"Most professional teachers don't have the time to surf the Web for these kinds of sites," she said. "We are looking for sites that relate to teaching, our research and other professional issues."
Greene explained that professors are evaluated in any case after each course for institutional purposes, and a "dry" presenter, however brilliant, will still be that no matter what online evaluation he or she receives.
"One person may like you, while another in the same class has a negative opinion," Greene said. "You can't be dictated by that."
Whereas RateMyProfessor allows students to share evaluations of teachers, Facebook and MySpace allow students to share their personal lives with each other.
Melania Deitch, director of marketing for Facebook, says her company's Web site is "about connecting people in a community" and "building real relationships."
"Facebook is the first program that allows people to communicate very easily and efficiently with friends in a trusted environment," she said. "Facebook is authenticated communities, based on real-world relationships."
University of Scranton student Liz Koprowski, a senior majoring in communications, helped bring Facebook to her campus community.
"I was always interested in other people's lives," she said. "I heard about it through other schools that had it, and we didn't, so I thought it'd be an interesting way to learn things about people or keep in touch with friends you forgot about."
For Koprowski, Facebook as well as MySpace has become a part of everyday life. She admits she looks at both between three and eight times a day.
"If it weren't for Facebook, I'd have a 3.8 [grade point average]," she joked.
On the other hand, Penn State student Jessica Portuese sees no use for online networking sites.
"It seems like once people start to use it, it ends up taking up so much of their time," she said.
Portuese, an engineering major, says she does not want to be online all the time. She also dislikes what she perceives as a lack of security on some of these Web sites, which she fears could make her vulnerable to stalkers and other types of, as she put it, "sick activity."
"I don't like how people look things up about others to find out information that's really none of their business," said Portuese.
Guess Who Else Is Online?
It may surprise college students who post pictures of themselves guzzling beer bongs in their underwear that their fellow students aren't the only people looking at their personal pages.
Gregory Hessel, managing director of human resources at Los Angeles-based executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, sees nothing wrong with surveying MySpace or Facebook when evaluating new hires — as long as it is done in what he considers a positive way.
If anything objectionable stands out, "each candidate must be given a chance to respond prior to using the information to rule someone out," Hessel said.
When asked if he thought whether the personal life of a new hire would affect his or her work life, Hessel replied, "We are most concerned about ethics, integrity and decision-making ability."
He added that matching chemistry is also important.
Helbig, the Berkeley career counselor, tells her students to be careful of what they put on the Web.
She feels that social-networking sites may show a side of a person that may or may not reflect his ability to perform well on the job, and that employers should "keep in mind that personal Web profiles are best considered in context."
"Applicants probably have much more to offer than what they present on their online profiles," said Helbig. "We understand that employers want to make sound hiring choices."
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil-liberties lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., doesn't think students who post less-than-exemplary information about themselves on a public Web site should expect a right to privacy.
"I think some of the risks of putting personal information online is the difference between what the person wants available to publish and one that someone sells without consent," he said.
Rotenberg says EPIC is more concerned with information that is put online without a person's consent. What each individual freely posts is his own responsibility — and remember, what goes online once often stays online forever.
"Employers have a lot of latitude" Rotenberg said, adding that unless an applicant is turned down due to race, gender or ethnicity, companies can hire — or not hire — whomever they like.
"It's the individual's problem," said Rotenberg. "It really shouldn't matter if you play in a garage band, but if you make that publicly available — why wouldn't the employer have the right to hire you?"
Koprowski disagrees with that companies should be using online social networks during background checks.
"Your personal life and work life are different,"she said. "If you can go to work and do the same job, what does it matter what you do on your own time?"
Facebook's Dietch said her company's standards on privacy and allowable content have always been the same, pointing out that images portraying pornography, violence, bigotry or illegal behavior are forbidden.
"People are self-policing of what they see," she explained. "It's reported before we find it on our own sometimes. We have a 'three strikes, you're out' policy."
Facebook limits who can see a student's profile, including prospective employers, and gives the student the option to make his profile limited to his own community.
"I will probably end up making my profiles more private, so as to avoid people being able to see into my private life," Koprowski admitted.
Students should "be really thoughtful and responsible about content put up on themselves," Deitch warned. "Facebook is such a self-expression tool, so students should still be careful."
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