Facebook changes bring privacy warnings

It’s not unusual for Smith Anderson to take a call from an administrator or faculty member about his work on the Resident Student Association’s executive board.

But it was a different story when Anderson heard from an advisor last January that former Northeastern President Richard Freeland checked out his Facebook profile – and saw probably more than he expected.

“My profile was pretty average of what a college student’s would be, except that my picture was of me running through my kitchen naked,” Anderson said.

President Freeland was discussing the networking website with senior administrators when the group decided to look up a familiar face.

“You couldn’t see anything explicit,” Anderson said, “but you could tell that I was naked, so they all had a good laugh about it.”

Many colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to warn students, both incoming and current, about the consequences of posting personal information and material on sites like Facebook.

Since its launch in early 2004, Facebook has gained a base of more than 9 million registered users across more than 40,000 regional, work, college and high school networks, according to its website.

Last week, college campuses were buzzing about two new features that were added to the site, called the News Feed and Mini-Feed. Each option could be used to keep a personalized list of news “stories” capturing each of the recent changes anyone within a user’s network makes to his or her profile.

The changes didn’t sit well with some users, including senior communications major Ashley Parchment.

“I think it’s garbage,” Parchment said. “I don’t need you to know that much about me, and if you wanted to know you could look on my profile, otherwise it’s unnecessary.”

Melissa Yurasits, also a senior communications major, agreed.

“I think there’s no reason why people should know the romantic details of every single one of your friends’ lives,” Yurasits said. “I don’t need everyone knowing my every single move that I do on Facebook, it’s stalker-like.”

For Northeastern, which prides itself on having one of the top co-op and internship programs in the country, the website could impact a student’s shot at landing a position if an employer catches a glimpse of an off-the-cuff or tounge-in-cheek remark in an applicant’s profile.

“You have to think about not only what your Facebook site says … but what your interests are, who you’re friends with, what clubs you are a member of, because that’s all out there in the public realm and people are going to make decisions about you based on what they read,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Ed Klotzbier.

Over the summer, Klotzbier and orientation leaders encouraged incoming students to consider the content of online postings, going as far as to cite several references to drugs and alcohol he had spotted.

“The thing about this news about Facebook is actually a good thing, because parents are starting to read about it in the mainstream media and are starting to understand it,” Klotzbier said.

It didn’t take long for Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to understand how some students felt about the new features.

Zuckerberg, in an open letter to the Facebook community, acknowledged he had received a lot of feedback about the new products within a two-day span.

“We are listening to all your suggestions about how to improve the product: It’s brand new and still evolving,” he said.

Klotzbier said he was not well-versed in the changes to the site, but he maintained that privacy is the end concern.

“Anybody who even thinks there’s any kind of privacy is kidding themselves; there’s no privacy whatsoever on the World Wide Web,” he said.

Senior journalism major Lacey Green said she liked some aspects of the new features, but took advantage of the privacy options that were later added to filter out excessive information.

“I think that’s kind of cool, because if someone sees me joining a club or doing some sort of activity that I’d want people to join in on, then I’d rather have them see it, but as far as me becoming friends with someone, I don’t think that anyone cares,” she said.

But Green said she wasn’t concerned about the new feature’s potential threat to privacy.

“I just didn’t think it was important,” she said. “It was kind of like a waste of space, like when you go on a website and there are all kinds of advertisements everywhere.”

For Anderson, his situation presented a teaching experience, he said.

Not long after he caught wind of what happened, so did others: the producers for Dateline NBC.

The network contacted Anderson and decided to report on the story. It aired on national television during a segment last spring.

The clip was also shown at freshmen orientations throughout the summer, Anderson said.

“It brought the message across that we were trying to get through to them,” he said.

You might call it the naked truth.

“It was a pretty good example of some of the things that you don’t want administrators or co-op employers or parents to be seeing, and although slightly embarrassing, it proved a really good point,” Anderson said.

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