By Amaya Garcia
Last August, Michele opened a Facebook account at the University of Richmond network. She now uses it regularly to keep in touch with more than 100 friends, almost all of whom are UR undergraduate students, mostly internationals.
Michele sends them messages and "threads" – a kind of group discussions – and frequently looks at their pictures or posts her own photos. If her friends have a "status" description that sounds somehow worrisome, she might call them to check if everything is OK.
But Michele might also call her friends and politely ask them to remove pictures or comments that she doesn't consider appropriate.
After all, Michele is one of the nearly 7,000 who is part of the UR network in Facebook. Michele Cox is the director of the study-abroad program at Richmond, and using the college-based, social networking webpage has become part of her job as an adviser for international exchange students.
"Facebook is a wonderful communication tool," Cox said.
Like Cox, an increasing number of university officials and professors have started using Facebook as a tool to communicate with their students and to know more about them. According to recent accounts in the media, many employers are also interested in the virtual personas of their workers.
Facebook.com, launched by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg in February 2004, is a new and almost unregulated sphere. So it's unclear to which extent university officials and professors are allowed to access the accounts of students, and what use they can give to the information they find there. And this makes many college students feel concerned.
Cox said she used Facebook mainly to advertise the events that her office was organizing, to share information about scholarships and to keep in contact with students once they go back to their home institutions. She also wants to start a Facebook group to encourage science students, who are less likely to study abroad, to profit from this program.
At the same time, she thinks it's her obligation to warn international students, who are in most cases unfamiliar with Facebook before coming to the United States, about the possible negative consequences that displaying inappropriate pictures or comments may have, Cox said.
Talking about some issues with international students whose names she wouldn't provide, Cox said she's had to ask students to remove profile pictures that were far too sexy. "It seemed as if they were trying to sell their bodies rather than to look nice," she said. In other cases, students appeared drinking in many of their photos, even if they were underage.
Cox said she also told a student that the lyrics of the song she cited as her favorite in her profile were really disturbing. In this case, she said, it was the student's professor who warned her office about the student's fondness for that song.
In most cases, students react well and appreciate her comments, Cox said, because they realize that Facebook isn't only accessed by their friends.
"International students have to understand that professors and employers do check Facebook," she said, "and that what they see there can have consequences."
Cox also said that her office would never base the admission of international students who apply for Richmond on their Facebook profiles. And a similar policy is used at Richmond's Office of Admissions, said Maria Cedeno, assistant director of admissions.
The office of admissions has always been the first step in a student's college experience, and nowadays it's also, in many cases, mediated by Facebook.
At Richmond, recruiters will accept the friendship requests of prospective students – that means they'll add them to their friend-lists when they ask for it – but they can't base their decisions on the content displayed in applicants' profiles, Cedeno said.
Doing so would be unfair, she said, because students haven't explicitly given the university permission to evaluate their virtual personas. Officers should only consider grades, recommendation letters and essays. As for Facebook, it's not really the place of admissions officers, Cedeno said.
Students might befriend the admissions officer who visits their school because they think this connection will be useful in order to have an advocate in the admissions process, she said. But this doesn't usually mean they'll think about taking the step of cleaning their Facebook account to make it more appealing for college recruiters.
"Most students don't think that far ahead," Cedeno said. "After all, they are 15, 16 or 17 years old when they apply."
She said that, for most high school students, it was more important to have a profile that was attractive for their classmates than one that would seduce recruiters.
Things might be different for graduating students, who during their college experience usually become aware that Facebook can be key when applying for graduate school or when trying to get a job. The first is the case of Claudia Coons, a senior who has just been admitted at Carnegie-Mellon University, in Pennsylvania, for its graduate program in public policy.
"I thought they would check my Facebook account," she said. "But I don't think I have anything there that can make them decide not to admit me."
Coons said she would "untag" – take her name out of – a picture that someone else updated on Facebook and that she didn't want people to see. By doing so, she wouldn't be trying to please admission officers or employers as much as avoiding to be judged based on an image that didn't represent her, she said.
"I wouldn't be bothered if admissions people or professors looked at my Facebook profile," Coons said. "But I can understand why other people might be bothered."
Coons also said that she would be upset if she found out that a professor based his expectations of students on their Facebook profiles.
But some professors view this issue differently.
After all, Facebook is an easy and fast way to know more about students, and this can allow professors to develop a more successful approach to the way they teach their subjects.
A recent search for "Richmond faculty" on the network produced 190 accounts. Among them were associate professor of music Andrew McGraw, director of microscopy and imaging Carolyn Marks, and associate professor of chemistry Carol Parish. Also David Kitchen, associate dean of the school of continuing studies and summer programs director – as well as, we learn on his Facebook profile, Michele Cox's husband.
Rick Mayes, an assistant professor of political science at Richmond, said he used Facebook for several purposes. The most basic use is just looking at his new students' names and the faces that go with them, so that he can quickly match the right name to the correct face.
He also said Facebook was a useful tool to keep in touch with alumni and create a network of students that were interested in the topics his classes deal with. "For example, if I have an undergraduate student who wants to intern in a field where I know a graduate student is working, I'll put him in contact with the alumni using Facebook." Mayes said.
But the virtual network offers much more than just these possibilities, he said. If a student befriends him in the webpage, therefore allowing him to look at his complete profile and all other settings, Mayes might take this chance to know the student better, he said.
"I think Facebook isn't really a professor's domain," said Mayes, who has nearly 400 friends in the Richmond network.
"I know that, in a certain way, I'm trespassing."
For one of the courses he teaches, Global Health and Human Rights, Mayes has to choose the students who will compose his class, and Facebook can help him make a more accurate decision, he said. Even if he has always chosen students that he already knew, he'd take the students' profiles into account in case he had doubts, he said.
Looking at the students' profiles, he can find out whether they have read the books that are discussed in the class, or whether they have done volunteer work before, which is relevant because Mayes' students spend a week working at a health center in Peru.
But Mayes said he wouldn't reprimand his students if he saw something he didn't consider appropriate in their Facebook profiles or pictures.
"I'm sure they're savvy enough about which contents they make accessible to different people," he said.
Mayes also said he wasn't worried about the possibility that students could try to portray themselves in a way that didn't represent them but pleased professors, because they knew professors were also on Facebook.
"Everybody does that," Mayes said. "I have a resume where I only put the best things of my life, and not my frustrations. And we all send a Christmas letter in which we are selective about which events to mention and which ones to avoid. There's always an aspirational element."
A similar opinion was expressed by Kathleen Dreisbach, assistant director of the Career Development Center.
"You do the same when you write a resume or go to an interview," she said about students' tendency to present themselves in ways that are alluring for employers.
But Dreisbach said she thought most students didn't give their Facebook personas too much thought. As a career counselor, she said she was more worried about the negative impact that students' inappropriate pictures or comments could have.
"Students perceive Facebook as a private space, but it's not," she said. "Before displaying something on Facebook, you should think if you want it to be public."
It is quite frequent for companies to use Facebook when deciding to hire a candidate, Dreisbach said. This happens because recent graduates often end up in the human resources department for one or two years.
These graduates are still part of their college's network, and this gives them access to the profiles of fellow schoolmates.
"Limits blur," Dreisbach said, "and people can get into trouble."
Her recommendation for students is to use Facebook wisely, by choosing the highest privacy options and displaying appropriate profile pictures.
An inadequate Facebook profile can have negative consequences in a student's career, but students can also use the network to demonstrate that they are reliable and career-oriented, Dreisbach said.
Students can even add settings that allow them to display their knowledge of languages or show the places they have travelled to.
Dreisbach said she looked at the Facebook profiles of students before hiring them as assistants for the CDC. "They are going to represent this office and I want them to do it well, so I want to see how they represent themselves," she said.
And this is the attitude that prevails at most companies and institutions, Dreisbach said.
Apparently, even student-run organizations, such as sororities and fraternities, are beginning to take Facebook seriously and asking their members to follow certain rules when they display personal information in the network.
Yvonne Green, a junior majoring in French and Spanish, said that she avoided updating pictures where she was in any kind of questionable behaviour while she wore the letters of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
"I see it as a way of showing respect," Green said. "You just want to be tactful."
Even though she isn't aware of any special policy in her sorority regarding Facebook, she said she thought that any association wanted its members to represent the best of themselves and their group when they were in a public domain.
For instance, when Green traveled to Spain last summer, she didn't upload the pictures where alcohol was involved, even if there was nothing illegal about them, given that Spain's drinking age is 18, and she was 19 at the time.
The worry about the consequences of displaying on Facebook an image where they appear breaking the law is common among students. This is especially important regarding the issue of drinking, given that the legal age in Virginia is 21, but alcohol is present in most of the social events that college students attend.
The University of Richmond's policy says that no sanctioning actions should be taken if the only evidence of a student breaking its rules is a Facebook picture or a comment, Richmond Dean Joe Boehman said. Richmond's faculty and officers want to use Facebook as an educational tool, he said, not as a means for law-enforcement.
"If I see that a student is drinking too much, I won't punish him," Boehman said. "But I might have a conversation with him and try to find out if he has a problem with alcohol."
There is a broad debate among university officials about reprimanding students because of inappropriate contents displayed in the webpage, Boehman said. As for him, he won't sanction a student, but he might have a conversation with him and keep notes about the incident for his records, he said.
"In this campus, I'm not aware of anyone who's using Facebook as an investigative tool," Boehman said. "I'm not saying we wouldn't if there was a major incident."
Boehman said that he warned students about his policy regarding Facebook before accepting their friendship requests.
Maybe, he joked, this was the reason for his reduced number of friends in Facebook: 59 in all, 24 of which are at the Richmond network.
The case of residence assistants (or RAs) is slightly different from that of other students, Boehman said. There have been situations in which they've been confronted for the content of their accounts, although these issues have been related more often to inappropriate comments than to breaking of rules.
Boehman, who said he couldn't be more specific for fear of intruding students' privacy, said that standards are higher for RAs, because they are role-models for the rest of the student community, both in the real and in the virtual world.
"When an RA does something in a public place, and Facebook is a public place, people will assume that this attitude is correct, just because an RA is doing it."
"I know that students think of Facebook as a private place and a space to experiment with different identities," he said. "And I think it's a great tool.
"But I spend a lot of time talking with students about the image they portray because employers don't always have the same ethic constrains that officers or professors have here at Richmond when using Facebook."
Boehman said he had heard of cases in which alumni were denied interviews at the companies they were applying for, because of their Facebook profiles.
Pablo Melcon, a senior from Spain who is majoring in computer science and studies at Richmond in the international exchange program, said he didn't see an ethical difference whether it was a professor or an employer that was checking a student's Facebook account.
"To me, it's the same, because they are both trying to know more about your private life," Pablo said. "Although possibly if it's an employer the consequences can be greater, because they can simply deny you a job."
Melcon said that his appreciation of this intrusion could be different because in his culture the division between private and public life was clearer than in the United States.
But, like most Richmond students – both internationals and Americans – Melcon said he believed he had nothing to hide on Facebook, and he wouldn't make any changes to his account now that he had to look for a job.
"I think you should just be yourself on Facebook," Melcon said. "I don't think I have anything to hide and, sooner or later, my employers will find out the kind of person I really am."