Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

If your face fits
Sean Coughlan

An online social network is sweeping the most famous universities. Is the Facebook website going to create the digital equivalent of the old school tie?

What are the three most important things in the life of students in the United States? Beer, iPods and Facebook.

That's the finding of a lifestyle-tracking survey in US colleges this month. But what's that third one again?

Facebook is an online social network which has swept the university population in the United States and is making a foothold in this country. It's already a verb: "to facebook" someone. And if a couple are really publicly together they'll be described as "facebook official".

But what is this thing that US students say is now more important than sex and texting?

Founded by a Harvard student a couple of years ago, Facebook allows people to list their personal details online and communicate with other people through the website. It's an online Who's Who. It's how you advertise your parties and politics.

Digital ivy league

So what? You might think this is just another campus fad, or a pale imitation of Myspace, the social networking site that's one of the top five websites in the world. But what's different about Facebook is that it's not just an easy way to keep in touch, it's also a way of keeping it exclusive.

The website works around individual institutions. So if you don't have an e-mail account from the University of Oxford, you don't get into the Facebook for students at Oxford.

And in the UK, the Facebook wave has made its biggest impact at the upmarket universities - in places such as Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, the London School of Economics.

"It's pretty much universal at Oxford, everyone is on it," says Richard Hardiman, deputy editor of the Oxford Student newspaper.

Students put on their pictures, describe their likes and dislikes and romantic status - and use the website to swap messages. You list your friends, you can check out your friends' friends, or find people who have matching interests.

People use their real names and pictures - and the fact that these are identifiably fellow students makes it seem safer, says Richard Hardiman.

There's also a dating aspect of the website - as account holders can identify their current relationship status as anything from single to "it's complicated".

Blind dates

"A tremor can go through a social group when they hear someone has updated their relationship profile," says Hardiman.

So widespread is the use of "facebooking" of potential partners - checking out how they look and what they like - that Cambridge students have warned about the death of the blind date.

This hasn't met with universal approval. Sam Steddy, a languages student at University College London, says that the obsession with using Facebook is disrupting non-online relationships.

"People will organise parties and I'll say 'I didn't know you were having one'. And they'll say: 'I put it on Facebook'. They forget that there's a real world out there."

Among the students supporting lecturers during the recent strike was UCL's Kat Lay - and she said distributing information through Facebook was the most effective campaign tool.

"Leaflets would get thrown in the bin. But everyone is so obsessed with Facebook that they use it every day - people would be more likely to see something there," she says.

'Wheat from the chavs'

But what are the implications of all this? In the United States, Facebook has drawn the enthusiastic attention of politicians and businesses, eager to influence the hatching ground of the bright, young middle classes.

For politicians, it's a form of digital hustings, giving them a chance to set up stall in the place where young people are meeting. And for brand promoters, it's an instant insight into what young people like and dislike.

Employers have also been using the website as a way of checking out job applicants - creating a rash of stories about sober-looking job applicants being caught out by their own frolicking Facebook listings.

But in the UK, the question raised by Facebook is whether it's going to be socially exclusive. As an Oxford paper asks, is it about sorting the "wheat from the chavs"?

This extends beyond university, because Facebook also provides an ongoing private connection for students after they've graduated and when they're in the jobs market.

Will people be using these networks to tap each other up for jobs? How would you know if people were recruiting from lists of Oxbridge friends of friends?

Social commentator and university professor, Frank Furedi, says that the "sub-cultures gathering around these networks will become very powerful".

Not least because these huge exchanges of information and ideas are all taking place below the radar - out of sight of the traditional media. But Professor Furedi says that overall these networks will help people to sustain relationships, rather than create division.

"On balance, these networks will be positive, people will be able to intensify their social engagement with each other."

More to the point, these online networks have already entered the language. What's the ultimate sign that someone is really committed to you?

"Can I say you're my girlfriend on Facebook?"

First published on BBC News, 27 June 2006