By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
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.
Facebook has made its biggest impact at Oxford and Cambridge
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".
"A tremor can go through a social group when they hear someone has updated their relationship profile," says Hardiman.
Founded as an online social directory by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004
7.5m people registered
Seventh most popular website in US
"Facebooking": checking someone's Facebook profile before meeting them
"Facebook official": really going out together
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.
Facebook lets you browse lists of friends of friends
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?"
Below is a selection of your comments.
A friend of mine was interviewing an Oxford undergraduate and offered them the job. Before she'd heard back that the interviewee was planning to accept the position, she'd already found this information out from the person's Facebook profile!
I'm disgusted with the youth of today. Whatever happened to the two most important things in my time at university, viz sex and drugs? Bah, humbug.
Simon Langley, Ilkley
Facebook has become a phenomenon at Nottingham University, so much so that I've decided to do my geography dissertation on it. Am in the process of just starting, and was worried that Facebook would just be a fad and my dissertation would be left high and dry, but it looks set to stay. Let's just hope I get to talk to the right people concerning it.
Facebook is huge at Cambridge. Almost everyone is involved and I've yet to meet anyone who hasn't heard of it. Yes, it is quite a strange feeling when you meet someone in the flesh having met them on FB. Or, when out in town recognising someone and realising that you've seen them once on FB through a friend's profile. But it's such a simple tool. Great to keep in contact with people. Great to meet people. And a great procrastination tool!
Facebook has become as important a tool as Google or BBC Sport (two other favourites with students). When it first came to Oxford in 2004, it was simply used as a gimmick networking site, but it is now an essential part of keeping track of friends across a vast campus.
Matt Foster, Oxford
Facebook is absolutely huge. I'm currently using it to recruit flatmates for next year!
Nikolaus Banjo, London
Some people at my uni have been taken to school court based on drunken photos uploaded to their Facebook account! Beware, someone is always watching. Who needs a private investigator anymore anyways? Just look up anything you need to know on Facebook.
Charlie, Radford, USA
The most amazing thing about Facebook has been watching it grow. I joined it about 10 months ago when Nottingham was one of the few universities in England that had access to it. The first couple of months all was quiet...then as more people heard about it, and more universities were able to access it, the rise in participants was exponential! When I first joined I was 'connected' to about 200 people. Now? 11,501. And that's just at the University of Nottingham. It was phenomenal to watch a new culture boom like that!
Gregory Campbell, Nottingham
The Facebook idea sounds just like an updated form of social filtering or cleansing, refining the technique of only ever engaging with "the right sort of people". In effect, a social apartheid, which increases, through technology, the means to keep those on top, on top and vice versa ... They'll make out it's all a bit of fun but the odd thing is, we'll end up as the losers and they the winners. Funny that.
Facebook is a fantastic invention. It is a great way to connect with people that have like minded interests to yourself that you might otherwise not meet at your university. The main drawback however is that you can end up wasting many hours on it!
Benjamin Biggs, LSE
The exclusivity of Facebook is the key ... With Facebook you know that you're broadly dealing with your own kind of people. I'm addicted.
I, as an American, am not proud of the fact that my college life is surrounded by Facebook. Unfortunately, most parties or social events are advertised around Facebook. To be social you must be on Facebook. I miss old fashioned talking.
Knikki, Albany, New York
Facebook is also a wonderful way of reconnecting with people you went to school with before uni and have since lost track of. Dangers exist, though, as is being found out in the US; employers, themselves graduates of the schools they recruit from, set up accounts and check up on job applicants, sometimes rejecting them based on the juvenile behaviour revealed in the applicant's Facebook profile.
I have had Facebook since I started university last fall. It has changed the way we view people at my school. You catch yourself judging someone you have never met, on their specific profile listings like favorite movies and other interests. It is an interesting social study.
Vivianne, Los Angeles, California US
York Uni only got facebook about a month ago and it spread like an epidemic!! It was all anyone spoke about for weeks. It's now abating but I still use it, it lets me contact people that I dont have a phone number or email for which has been really useful.
I'm currently at the University of Manchester and while I agree Facebook is massive in this Uni, I find it all rather sad. My housemates write messages on Facebook to each other rather than walking 10 metres and actually verbally communicating!
Leon , London
Facebook is an awful social construct designed to cement the social hierarchies that should dissolve at university. As an Edinburgh Uni student involved with the university paper and on several society committees, I have a massive network of friends and interests, and get loads of requests to joing Facebook, but shy away from it because I feel it's just another way for people to emphasise how great their lives are, how many friends they have and which parties they've been at. No-one will care by next year.
At Imperial it arrived about two months ago and spread like wildfire.
It can get baffling when someone doesn't even speak to you at a party and then adds you as a "friend" on Facebook the next morning...
Anjool Malde, London
While some of my fellow students hold out against having a mobile phone, Facebook is almost universal. It is an incredibly useful tool and has increased the ease of communication between societies and their membership. The power of Facebook has become so great that the Students Asociation banned its use in union elections.
Robert, St Andrews
Facebook is the first really useful online social-networking tool that many young people have been exposed to. The fact that it lets you easily search the university alone and that profile-viewing is restricted outside the university domain means people are more comfortable and open. At King's, it is incredibly popular, especially with Freshers who will then induct future students into the Facebook network. Events, political meetings, parties are all advertised on there and, this year, the student union elections were heavily contested through Facebook. Three eventual winners of the elections even went as far as to pay for an advert on the Facebook site that linked directly to their manifestos and the online e-voting system. This definitely contributed to their eventual win.
Josh, King's College London
Thank God I am too old for all this - strikes me as rather sad, what happened to talking to each other? I despair
I don't like it. It's not the concept I don't like, it's the amazement people who are involved with it show when they find out you AREN'T. It just causes another form of peer pressure. Fortunately, I couldn't care less about peer pressure when making my decisions, which is why I still have a very old black and white display phone, and don't wear branded clothes.
Went to America last year and joined Facebook. Good to see the 'cult' is catching on. Good article!