Claire Autruong: The real face of Facebook

Let’s face it. Facebook really isn’t just for us college kids anymore.

Those of us who waited anxiously for our college e-mail addresses back in 2004 and 2005 so that we could make profiles on the new, exclusive college Web site would hardly even recognize that old site today. Facebook has become a new kind of Web animal, home to college kids, 10-year-olds, your boss, your mother, games, applications, and, yes, even companies and viral marketing.

Many in the college world were shocked by last month’s revelations that College Prowler, publisher of the “Off the Record” guidebooks, used fake profiles and names to create more than 500 “Class of 2013” Facebook groups. Inviting hundreds of thousands of incoming freshmen to join, they created the perfect environment for future viral marketing and information collection. GW was among the universities affected.

If you’re appalled that College Prowler made up fake incoming freshmen to ensnare innocent, real incoming freshmen in a false group, you may continue to be shocked and appalled. That is pretty sneaky and creepy.

But if you’re shocked because you just can’t believe that someone would “friend” you just to use your information, or if you think Facebook is still just a social networking tool for young people, let this be your final wake up call.

Facebook has become the epitome of the potentially great and dangerous future of marketing, and universities like GW need to get onboard now if they want to use this tool to their advantage while protecting their students.

What College Prowler did was underhanded and should not be repeated, but other companies are already doing essentially the same thing in a more above-board way, reaching out to potential consumer bases through one of the world’s most popular sites. Colleges and universities could easily take back this site that used to belong exclusively to their students, using Facebook to increase market presence.

Big-name schools have always had more resources to get their name and their brand out to potential applicants, but with platforms like Facebook, the playing field could be evened out a bit.

GW’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions already has Web outreach programs like blogs for incoming students, but the potential of marketing, viral or otherwise, via Facebook should be more seriously tapped. This site has launched many a social phenomenon – “That’s What She Said” Day comes to mind – and could surely be used to raise GW’s profile in the college pool or gather information on potential applicants. The apparatus and precedent are already there, after all.

By the same token, students should be fully aware that their profiles and their group memberships are no longer their private domain. Learn how to use the privacy settings and regulate your activities on the site. Remember the ripple of caution that went through site users after discovering that potential employers could be looking for photos of compromising behavior? We should be even more aware now. Facebook is now a marketing tool, not just a place to meet your new classmates.

And if someone named “Justin Gaither” requests your friendship or wants you to join his super-cool new “Class of 2013” group? You might want to do a little information-mining of your own.

The writer, a senior majoring in history, was The Hatchet’s fall 2008 opinions editor and is now a development associate.

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