News Analysis: College Authorities Could Trigger Facebook Backlash

Social networking site Facebook.com, currently riding the wave of Web 2.0 optimism, might soon face a backlash among its college-age users, thanks to college officials who have started using the site to aid in disciplinary investigations.

Earlier this month, Princeton University's daily student newspaper reported that the school's director of public safety, Charles Duvell, admitted that public safety officers had used Facebook.com to investigate two incidents of alleged violations of university policies.

The site's owners reportedly turned down a $750 million offer for the company, in hopes of selling it for $2 billion. But now, some industry watchers are saying that college students might well cut back their use of the site--or cease using it altogether--if they feel that information posted online might backfire against them.

Because Facebook's value depends on its audience of college student fans, if those fans abandon the site, the value could plummet, said eMarketer analyst Debra Williamson. "The value of the Facebook is in the number of students that are using it and the amount of time they spend there," she said. "If the fad fades, the students will move on, kind of like the keg going empty at a party."

And intrusion by campus cops could result in just such a fade, said Gary Stein, director of strategy at Ammo Marketing. "Right now, Facebook is really strong, based much on their protection of their members. But there is the danger of people backing off social networks in general, because of concerns about the "permanent record," he said. "I imagine we'll see, across the board, an overall sense of either going very anonymous or backing off sharing 'too much.'"

"So if that happens, the service itself becomes a little less attractive for people," Stein said. "After all, the point is to share, and if no one wants to share, it's less interesting."

But social media expert Pete Blackshaw said it's unlikely that Facebook's cache with students will be dislodged by the recent report out of Princeton. "The notion of masquerading identities is a regrettable--albeit generally accepted--reality of the Web, and I doubt this incident will make a meaningful difference in the real or perceived 'value' of Facebook," he said. "One might even argue that the presence of campus cops in Facebook underscores its value as credible venue for student networking and expression--clearly, the 'administration' takes it seriously."

And according to Bolt Media CEO Aaron Cohen, it's not just the "cool" factor that keeps students coming back to Facebook--it's the drive to share content like photos and profiles. "The more that the powers that be try to destroy a media proposition, the more popular that media proposition becomes," he said.

Cohen said it's unlikely that students will quit--rather, they'll just modify their behavior to avoid administration scrutiny--but Facebook would do well to come up with new functions to make sure students' profiles and photos are only seen by the people they want to see them. "If the Facebook is going to serve its audience to be as open as possible," said Cohen, "they're going to think about building functionality that goes beyond what they've done so far."

Facebook spokesman Chris Hughes said that the company has already allowed users to restrict access to their profiles and photos. "If users do not want police to be able to see their profile information, they should go to the 'My Privacy' section and change their settings. They can make it so that only students can see the info, or even so that only friends can," he said. "Users have complete control over who can see what."

Moreover, Hughes said, the site disables profiles when they find users have said they are students when they are not. "Every individual who signs up for Facebook agrees as part of our Terms of Service not to misrepresent themselves," he said. "We regularly disable accounts when misrepresentations are brought to our attention."

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