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In Online Social Club, Sharing Is the Point Until It Goes Too Far

Miguel de Leon of Georgetown University adjusted his privacy settings after a class in online security.
Miguel de Leon of Georgetown University adjusted his privacy settings after a class in online security. (By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)

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By Susan Kinzie and Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 7, 2006

Denizens of one of the Web's most popular student hangouts are in an uproar over changes to the site that they say make their online musings much too public, turning their personal lives into a flashing billboard.

Facebook.com, a site used by more than 9 million students and some professionals, is an Internet lounge where people share photos, read one another's postings and make connections -- a kind of digital yearbook through which people find out about goings-on with their friends and on campus.

But this week the site's immense popularity backfired after it started a feature that culls fresh information users post about themselves -- Tim is now single -- and delivers it in headline-news format to their network of buddies. Facebook, of Palo Alto, Calif., unveiled the feature at midnight Monday, saying it would make new information easier to find. Within hours, online protest groups were formed and thousands of people had joined.

"I don't like it because it's kind of stalker-ish," said Yan Fu, a freshman at George Washington University, adding that he now thinks twice before posting to his page. "I think, 'Everybody can read it,' so I've avoided it."

Fu's sentiment was shared by many Facebook users, hundreds of thousands of whom have joined ad hoc groups of petitioners calling themselves "I hate the new facebook format" and "Students Against Facebook News Feed."

Such a strong reaction in defense of privacy is rare among the teenage and twenty-something generation, which grew up in the era of public disclosure in the form of blogs, video sharing and reality television. Until now, questions about the wisdom of disclosure were raised primarily by parents, teachers and university administrators, while students flocked to Facebook and similar sites such as MySpace, Xanga and LiveJournal.

These social-networking sites have changed the way students meet and remember what they did last night -- especially as it gets easier to take and post information online or link to photos and video. For schools, the online networking phenomenon raised concerns that students' lives and escapades were being played out much more publicly with sometimes funny, sometimes embarrassing and occasionally dangerous results.

The women's lacrosse team at Catholic University got in trouble recently for photos posted online of the players and an all-but-naked guy. Last year, when Virginia Commonwealth University freshman Taylor Behl disappeared, police read her postings on social-networking sites for clues to her killer. That led many universities to warn students about risks as soon as they get to campus -- or even before they have arrived.

Virginia Tech asked older students to talk with freshmen about using caution. Catholic added online security issues to its student orientation. Students at Georgetown University got a brochure over the summer, and some signed up for a technology and online security class during orientation.

Georgetown pre-med student Miguel de Leon took the class and said the lecturer "made a good point when he said you wouldn't put your cellphone number on the wall of a building on M Street." So why post it on online message boards, or "walls"? De Leon changed his privacy settings afterward.

Joining Facebook requires a legitimate e-mail account at a school or business. Members can decide how private they want their profile to be by limiting access, for example, to only undergraduates, faculty or individuals.

Many students said that they think it is fine to use technology to give outsiders a window into their lives and thoughts but that Facebook's new policy of broadcasting every update about their lives to other users is trespassing on the bounds of their privacy.


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