Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

When your life becomes an open book

Students find the advantages, pitfalls of social networking sites

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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.

A link to schoolwork,social circles

Suzanna Vaughan, a 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 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.

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.

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.