Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

When your life becomes an open book

Students find advantages and pitfalls of social networking Web sites

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Student Board of Education member Ben Moskowitz said his Facebook page helped him win his post last spring.
As a candidate for the student representative on the Montgomery County Board of Education last spring, Ben Moskowitz needed to get his message to students across the county.

He found an answer when a classmate offered to start a group to advance his campaign on the social-networking site Facebook.

‘‘I found it to be a great organizing tool,” said Moskowitz, now a 17-year-old senior at Walter Johnson High School. ‘‘At my group’s height, I had about 800 members from all the different high schools in Montgomery County, which was great because there’s no other way to coordinate 25 different high schools.”

Moskowitz is one of many students who have seen firsthand how Facebook is changing the way students interact. After Moskowitz’s site launched, a proliferation of student-election Facebook groups followed, including that of his opponent, and others started by third parties who wanted to weigh in on the election.

‘‘I couldn’t even keep track of them all,” he said.

Through his official Facebook group, ‘‘Ben Moskowitz for SMOB 2007,” Moskowitz said he had ‘‘instant communication” with about 800 people. He sent mass messages reminding students to vote and hand out campaign materials, and they sent him posts about concerns.

‘‘I got messages that would encourage me to focus on particular issues,” he said.

Moskowitz said Facebook helped to get 65,000 middle and high school students to vote in the election — the highest turnout ever.

However, Facebook also led to a controversy concerning the results. Moskowitz’s opponent, Will Bucher of Montgomery Blair, filed a grievance with Montgomery County Public Schools in which Bucher said comments posted on Facebook sites contributed to his defeat and spread inaccurate information about his campaign.

Among other things, the grievance asserted that Moskowitz’s Facebook group was linked to by other Facebook groups that Bucher said were defamatory. In the grievance, Bucher also said that posts made on ‘‘Ben Moskowitz for SMOB 2007” spread untrue statements about Bucher before and after the election.

Moskowitz said he did not become the administrator of the site until after the election.

The grievance was denied by the school system. But it does raise the question of accountability in an online forum where anyone can post unedited comments.

‘‘Facebook spreads words efficiently,” Bucher wrote in an e-mail. ‘‘When words are true, they can enlighten voters. When words are false, they harm the integrity of every vote cast. Even if debunked by Facebook, lies can still have a resounding effect.”

Moskowitz said it’s unfortunate how Facebook has the ability to spread unverified information, but said that exposure to such material is a risk that public candidates take.

‘‘As a political figure, you’re putting that stuff out there,” he said. ‘‘You’re taking a risk. People are going to criticize you and they’re going to judge you.”

A link to schoolworkand social circles

Suzanna Vaughan, a 17-year-old senior at Montgomery Blair High, has had a Facebook page since her sophomore year, and said that in addition to the often-cited social uses of Facebook, she’s also found ways to use it in her schoolwork.

‘‘I’ve used it to communicate with people about group projects and stuff,” she said. ‘‘When you’re working with people who you don’t know well enough to talk to on the phone, you’re more comfortable talking to them on Facebook, and you can send messages to big groups.”

Vaughan said the ability to look at the Facebook sites of her peers — some of whom she has not spoken to in person — has also created unique social situations at school.

‘‘We call them Facebook stalker moments,” she said. ‘‘When you pass someone in the hallway, and you’ve never talked to them, but you’ve read their Facebook.”

‘‘It’s weird,” she said, ‘‘because they don’t know that you’ve seen their Facebook a lot of the time. You’re not going to walk up to them and be like, ‘Yeah, I like that movie, too,’ or something.”

Breton Sheritan, a 17-year-old senior at Montgomery Blair, said that while many of his friends use Facebook, he does not. Sheritan said he doesn’t like the way students post pictures of themselves and their friends doing things they shouldn’t be doing, and he added that it often leads to their parents finding out.

‘‘People consistently seem to be getting themselves in trouble for Facebook,” he said. ‘‘I think when I’m in college, I’ll want to stay in touch with my friends and maybe I’ll get a Facebook then. But in high school, most people just use Facebook to be like, ‘Look how drunk I was at that party.’”

That type of use is what led Montgomery County Public Schools to prevent access to Facebook and other social networking sites such as MySpace on school computers, according to Gail Bailey, the county director of school library media programs.

‘‘As a social networking site, Facebook provided access to — and sometimes unannounced access — to areas and sites that were harmful to minors and students,” she said.

Bailey said the school system began to block social networking sites in order to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, a federal law enacted by Congress in December 2000.

Montgomery County Public Schools receive discounted Internet access through the federal E-rate program, and under CIPA could not continue unless the system instituted Internet safety policies and technology protection that included blocking the sites.

‘‘We debated it,” Bailey said, ‘‘because we do see some value in students communicating with one another. However, when they were able to pull up very inappropriate images in school, we decided to block it.”

Bailey said no specific incidents or complaints from parents or teachers led to enactment of that policy.