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Facebook use evolves at Notre Dame

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, February 27, 2009

This is the second installment of a three-part series that will explore the recent terms of use controversy involving Facebook and delve into the way interaction with and opinion of the site has changed since 2004, when Notre Dame students were first able to become users.

Unlike most Notre Dame students, junior Helen Syski has never been a Facebook user.

Her cousin once tried, unsuccessfully, to create an account for her, but Syski made up her mind years ago that she would not join the popular social networking group.

If the more than 175 million people who actively use Facebook made up a country, that country would be the sixth largest in the world.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made this observation in a Facebook blog post Feb. 18 when he announced the site was reversing its decision to make changes to its terms of use. The original changes – which deleted language that said Facebook’s right to content would expire once a user cancelled his account – caused Facebook members to fear that the site retained a permanent license to their content.

Alarm throughout the Facebook community prompted Zuckerberg to return the terms of use to the language in place before the Feb. 4 change.

Balancing privacy concerns with use of the Facebook site has never been an issue for Syski, whose older siblings, particularly a sister four years older than her, discouraged her from joining the site.

“I think there’s always a tendency to objectify people,” Syski said, one of the reasons she decided to stay away from Facebook.com.

Syski said she has talked to peers who also do not have Facebook, but could not immediately think of anyone beside herself who does not use the site.

Since most of her friends are users of the site, it would be easy for her to jump on their account to look around. But Syski said it’s something she’s probably only done five times.

Syski admitted there are some drawbacks to not being on Facebook.

“Occasionally I have been the last to know about something, but I usually get an e-mail when people include me on the Facebook invite,” she said.

But the pros of being off Facebook have outweighed the cons for her, she said.

“I’m developing deeper friendships, and I find better ways to keep in touch with people,” she said.

Syski is a rare case, as most Notre Dame students are Facebook users.

The History of Facebook at Notre Dame

Founded by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, the site, then known as thefacebook.com, came to Notre Dame later that year.

On Aug. 22, 2004, people with e-mail addresses ending @nd.edu could join the site. Notre Dame was among the first 60 colleges to join the networking community, and in a little more than a week, over 1,000 people had joined as Notre Dame users.

The Observer described the site as “the dogbook on steroids,” a reference to the picture directory of the freshman class students can buy when they arrive on campus.

One female sophomore quoted in the 2004 Observer article loved it.

“It has never been easier to find people that are like you,” she said.

Another student did not like it, saying “it stretches even the lowest of lows in wasting time.”

But Facebook took off at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. A search of The Observer’s archives for the term “Facebook” yields 170 results.

Some articles about the site reported positive experiences, others negative.

In September 2005, The Observer reported Saint Mary’s students were receiving abusive threats on Facebook.

The Keenan Revue the next year featured a skit about Facebook, ending with a face-off against MySpace, another popular social networking site.

A month later, The Observer reported that disciplinary offices at other schools were using Facebook for punitive actions. Jeff Shoup, the director of the Office of Residence Life and Housing (ORLH), told The Observer then that at least one person in the office had a Facebook account, and they might look at it after a student gets in trouble. Saint Mary’s administrators told The Observer then that they have it, but are not using it for punitive reasons.

In September 2006, students voiced their anger about the addition of the Facebook news feed in Letters to the Editor. One inside column called it the “news feed from hell.”

A Notre Dame senior wrote a Letter to the Editor shortly after the news feed addition, saying she had quit her account.

“I believe the Facebook was a gigantic roadblock to my journey to become a better person,” the senior wrote. “While others may use the Facebook for positive reasons, I, a true Facebook-aholic, allowed it to exploit every jealous and spiteful inclination I might possess in my far from perfect self.”

In October 2006, members of student government and other student representatives tried to explain the concept of Facebook to the Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees.

One board member reported he was “shivering” after viewing a detailed profile. Many Trustees were perplexed by the definition of “friends” on Facebook.

Careerbuilder.com unveiled a survey that same month which revealed that one in 10 employers used social networking sites to acquire personal information while screening job candidates.

The next year, The Observer reported the ORLH had received some phone calls from freshmen who wanted to change roommates after seeing the Facebook profile of their designated roommate.

In four and a half years, Facebook has become integrated into student life at Notre Dame. Student government candidates develop Facebook sites to attract voters. Relationships are announced and events organized on the site. Most recently, Subway enthusiasts have started a Facebook group to gather support for their fight to get $5 footlongs at the LaFortune location.

Facebook here to stay?

It’s difficult for some to remember that a few years ago, no one was sure how long Facebook would be around, whether it was a passing fad or here to stay.

“Facebook three or four years ago may have been considered possibly something that was temporary…” Brian Fremeau, the assistant director of Student Activities said earlier this week. “It wasn’t necessarily something that was treated as, ‘this is going to be here forever.’ Now I don’t think that conversation is happening. Facebook has established itself as being a primary mode of communication, not something that is tacked onto the other ways student communicate.”

Many student groups have been using the site to get the word out about events, beyond the traditional avenues of Observer advertisements, posters and table cards in the dining halls, he said.

Saint Mary’s sophomore Liz Brown has embraced the site. She became a Facebook member the summer before she enrolled at the College.

“I thought it would be an easy way to get to know my roommate and a really good way to keep in touch with friends once I came out here, because I’m from Pennsylvania,” she said.

Brown described herself as an active user of the site. She updates her “Facebook status,” uploads pictures, “tags” friends in pictures, comments on others’ statuses, writes on friends’ walls and sends messages.

She is on the site daily, about 10 times a day.

“Basically, anytime I get on my computer, that’s the first thing I do,” she said.

She has 373 Facebook friends, she said, and everyone she knows, both five years older and five years younger than her, is a member.

“E-mail is great,” she said, “but it is so much quicker to be on Facebook and write on someone’s wall.”

Brown does enable privacy settings to limit her information to just friends. And she said she doesn’t share much to begin with.

She doesn’t plan to cancel her account anytime soon.

The third installment of this series will discuss ways students maintain privacy on Facebook and how use of the site has changed and will change as college users graduate and continue using Facebook.