Popularity of social sites prompts monitoring, censorship

Editor’s note: First in a series about the monitoring of social Web sites.

A former Congressman is likely to visit Townhouse Row this semester to help a fraternity tackle an image problem – one that’s occurring in cyberspace.

New president of Pi Kappa Alpha John Galmiche set up a committee to find marketing consultants to instruct members of the fraternity about how to best represent the organization on and off line.

It’s a dilemma that has gotten more challenging with the rapidly growing popularity of social Web sites like Facebook, YouTube and MySpace, where students represent themselves, and the groups they belong to, with photos, messages and other personal information. Now, more than ever, student organizations have started self-policing to avoid member’s inappropriate online content from marring the image of the group.

Galmiche, a junior, said he hopes to be one of the first Greek-letter group leaders to challenge unfair stereotypes of fraternities and sororities that sites like Facebook pose. Social networking sites are harming the fraternity’s image, he said, because of the focus solely on social activity.

“With the advent of things like Facebook and MySpace, it really has made my job difficult because if we have a party and pictures go up, it’s hard to combat that,” he said.

Since Facebook’s creation, the site’s population has grown to include more than 14 million members – with over 20,000 at GW – and has expanded its membership to high school and regional networks.

Students have gradually become more aware that people other than their peers – employers, admissions officers, University administrators and parents – are using Facebook to find information about their inappropriate behavior. With thousands of GW undergraduates posting pictures of drinking, drug use and sexual activity online, the potential ramifications for these cyberspace postings have become very real.

Greek-letter organizations

To maintain a positive image, fraternity and sorority leaders say they monitor the online activity of members to ensure no tarnishing material is thrust into the public light.

Of the 10 campus Greek-letter organizations interviewed, every one instructs their members to act responsibly online and to think twice before putting the organization at risk.

Alpha Phi President Julia King said her sorority first began speaking seriously about social networking sites when a sister and GW alumnus was asked by an employer to search for job applicants’ Facebook profiles. For Alpha Phi, the story illustrated the realistic dangers that can lurk on the Internet for students’ futures.

While King said it is important for the organization to discuss online responsibility, setting rules about the activity can be difficult.

“We definitely feel that the way we represent ourselves on the Internet and Facebook is important,” King, a junior, said. “But we are also a group of very independent people, and we can’t set guidelines of what is ladylike or what is Alpha Phi-like and what isn’t.”

The marketing specialist who Pi Kappa Alpha is looking for will discuss how to improve public relations and be more hands-on about the fraternity’s image. Galmiche hopes this will inspire his brothers to more actively publicize the group’s philanthropic and community service events.

J.R. Parsons, director of chapter resources at the fraternity’s national office, said marketing was a major topic at their annual conference this summer and that GW’s chapter has the right idea about managing marketing.

“I’m encouraged to hear that they received that message and have taken it back to their campus and improved on it,” Parsons said.

Religious organizations

Dean Carson, a freshman at GW and president of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, a Jewish youth organization, recently went to great lengths to show his members the potential power of the Internet.

At an annual NFTY conference this summer, regional officers were greeted by an auditorium adorned with over 4,000 online pictures and text excerpts, all of which showed NFTY members besmirching the organization or acting inappropriately. Carson and his executive board planned the event after noticing an influx of online activity that was damaging to their cause.

For Carson, the material presented tangible evidence about the effects of the virtual world.

“Seeing these things physically out in the open was very shocking for a lot of people, and it provided a very clear message,” Carson said. “It was a physical example showing them clear and straightforwardly that they have to be smart about everything they do online.”

The freshman said several people reacted by deleting their Facebook and MySpace accounts, while others considered it a good lesson on how to represent an organization online. In addition, several regional leaders have introduced the presentation – called OurSpace – to their local chapters. Like Facebook, MySpace is an online community for sharing personal information and photos, but it has more of a focus on journal entries.

“As members of NFTY, just by being a member, we need to represent our movement,” Carson said. “We are a part of it, everyone is, and every action that someone takes – whether directly related or not – can affect NFTY as a whole.”

Although GW Hillel – a Jewish campus life umbrella organization – does not have set guidelines on monitoring members’ activity on online social sites, the chapter’s director does frequently use Facebook.

Executive Director Rob Fishman said he doesn’t seek out unseemly content posted on the site, but that if he chanced upon it, he would take action. “I think if I was to see something that is totally inappropriate online I would make a personal contact.”

Advocacy groups

When representing a controversial topic, some student organization leaders said they have difficulty maintaining the credibility of their public image.

“I think that everyone understands that we’re trying to do something important,” said junior Greg Hersh, president of the GW Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “And if we were to portray the image of a stupid pothead, then no one would take us seriously.”

Hersh said that while he considers the Facebook profiles of NORML members’ private, anything online associated with NORML should help, not hinder, its cause.

“I’m not going to say that they shouldn’t have pictures of them smoking,” Hersh said. “As long as there are no pictures of people smoking on the NORML (Facebook group) site, that’s OK.”

When a group of out-of-state anti-abortion activists came to campus wielding graphic fetus posters, GW’s Colonials for Life organization didn’t want to be associated with the raucous demonstrators. Peter Glessing, public relations director of Colonials for Life, instructed group members to avoid being recorded or photographed next to the activists for fear of video and images showing up online.

Even though Glessing’s group agreed in principle with the protesters, he did not want group members to be permanently linked to the activists, some of whom had megaphones directed toward residence halls and academic buildings. Fear of a video ending up on YouTube informed his decision.

YouTube is a video-sharing site founded about two years ago, which gained popularity over the past six months for its role in a Virginia senatorial race and when former Seinfeld star Michael Richards had a racist outburst during a standup act.

“Video and photos and (Web) sites where those images would be available online were sites that we’re concerned about most,” Glessing, a junior, said. “It could be taken out of context.”

Consequences for online actions

Experts say there is a fine line between student groups educating their members on maintaining a positive cyber image and harming individuals’ legal right of expression.

Steven Hetcher, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, said that organizations advising their members about online privacy could be infringing on their members’ First Amendment rights.

“Really, I think it’s a trade-off of different values we have: one being privacy and the other being a bad representative of your organization,” Hetcher said.

He added that preemptive education gives organizations a legal leg-up: “If a fraternity gets sued because a member posts something, then the fraternity’s defense might be ‘We took preemptive measures.'”

Coye Cheshire, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley School of Information, said many students are ignorant of the consequences for their online actions.

“I think the big message is that people need to be educating their members about the implications of posting this kind of material, whatever it might be,” Cheshire said. “People have to realize that with new technology and new ways to disseminate information, they have to give some thought before they hit that send button.”

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