your face fits
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
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
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".
"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
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
"Can I say you're my girlfriend on Facebook?"
published on BBC News, 27 June 2006