Facebook's Greek drama

On campuses nationwide, site is transforming social-networking norms--and some sororities are trying to curb its influence.

7 min read
The campus influence of Facebook--from study session scheduling to late-night homework procrastination--has not gone unnoticed.

The outrageously popular social-networking site, in fact, features its press coverage prominently on its About page. But even Facebook's college-age officers seem unaware of how much the site is affecting the recruitment practices of a long-powerful networking tool on about 80 percent of the campuses it covers: fraternities and sororities.

This fall marks the first recruitment, or "rush," season for most colleges with Greek systems since Facebook's 2004 launch. Some organizations on the 1,240 Greek campuses counted by Greekpages.com are embracing the popularity of the site: "Want to be a founder of a diverse sisterhood at Northwestern?" one recent ad on Facebook's Northwestern University network read. "Be a part of the group that soon will be on campus," it said, linking to a sorority representative's e-mail address.


What's new:
Originally launched as a student directory, campus-networking site Facebook, with more than 4 million registered profiles, now is used by many students as a recruitment tool for fraternities and sororities nationwide.

Bottom line:
Sororities are restricting their members' use of the site to curb its influence on recruitment. Other users have adopted a self-imposed Facebook etiquette, and have learned to manage their profiles accordingly.

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Others, however, are trying to curb the site's influence on recruitment.

Joining a Greek-lettered organization, or house, is intended to be a structured process of mutual selection--admittedly more so among sororities than fraternities. While sororities tend to keep prospective members out of their houses until the formal recruitment period, fraternities traditionally have done the opposite, organizing plenty of informal events for rushees early in the year.

For both camps, however, Facebook is taking a good chunk of mystery out of Greek recruitment. Without asking a soul, a freshman can find out which house that chatty junior in her political-science class belongs to, along with the allegiances of all her friends. In browsing through Facebook profile after profile, she can gather consensus as to which sororities are coolest or smartest or friendliest before rush even begins.

Facebook has become such a common pre-meeting tool--and such a force in undermining rush's ordered design--that Greek establishments are now restricting how their members use the site.

University of Miami senior Sara Lapham, for instance, was instructed to alter her Facebook profile this fall. In serving her sorority as an unaffiliated member, or Rho Gamma, to help guide women (with unbiased and confidential advice) through rush, Lapham was to keep her membership secret from all potential new members, or PNMs.

By Aug. 12, when disaffiliation was set by the school's Panhellenic Association to begin, all Rho Gammas were told to adjust their Facebook profiles' privacy controls "so that no PNMs had the potential to search for us," Lapham said in an e-mail interview. "We could still search people ourselves, and our friends could still see our profiles, but anyone not on our friends list could not see us," she said.

UM's Panhellenic Association also told the women to remove all Facebook information tying themselves to their houses, in case rushees were to gain access to their profiles. "It would not be immediately obvious, though she could quickly figure it out...The fact that 80 or so of my friends on Facebook are Delta Gammas would be pretty obvious," Lapham said.

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Rules were imposed on more than Rho Gammas. Affiliated women at UM and other schools, including Indiana University, according to a school newspaper, were "strongly encouraged not to accept a (Facebook) invitation to be friends with any PNMs, nor were they to poke or message any of these girls," Lapham said, because by doing so, "it may appear to others that we are 'dirty rushing.'"

At least one college is now preventing many of its students from using Facebook for any purpose. Partly due to concerns that a similar-looking site, called UNM Facebook, was creating confusion for students, the University of New Mexico recently blocked access to the facebook.com domain from its on-campus network, according to student newspaper The Daily Lobo. In a newspaper poll regarding the ban, 42 percent of respondents said the university's reasons "aren't valid." Although 9 percent felt that Facebook is risky and produces spam, another 21 percent voted that "even if it did cause problems, no Web site should be blocked by the university."

Along with "friending" and "poking"--which some liken to flirting--avid Facebook users also tend to create or join a large number of Facebook groups, ranging from "My name is not Mike" to "Red Sox Nation" to "I'm on Facebook to Get Laid Club," just to make their profiles a bit more dynamic.

Despite the new rules, designed in part so that planned social encounters with rushees would take precedence over online evaluations, Facebook lookups are becoming an integral part of how Greek houses are viewing their potential new members.

"The affiliated women are able to get a much better sense of who the PNMs are, based on their profiles," Lapham said. In narrowing down potential invitations during rush, Delta Gamma members "remember a lot better who they met because they are able to look at their pictures on Facebook."

The searches, of course, go both ways. Partly for that reason, Lapham said, "we are not supposed to have distasteful pictures or phrases (in our profiles). When someone does have something that is considered unacceptable, the (chapter) president or someone generally messages them, asking them to kindly remove it."

A Harvard offspring
Facebook itself has been noting profiles reported to contain inappropriate or offensive information, said Chris Hughes, the site's "Pressguy." Hughes is the only one of the four original Facebook contributors who has remained a full-time student

at non-Greek Harvard University since the site became a national student addiction.

Launched in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, then a sophomore at Harvard, Facebook was set up as an online, updatable replacement for the paper directories that freshman often receive their first week of school. Those directories often featured low-quality (or absent) mug shots and basic profile information of students.

"At the outset, Facebook was a project by and for Harvard students, but because over 6,000 Harvard kids signed up within the first three weeks, it seemed ridiculous not to open it up to a few other schools," Hughes said.

After opening membership to almost anyone with a .edu e-mail address, Facebook gained more than 4 million registered profiles, spanning upwards of 1,500 colleges nationwide. In addition to photos, personal interests and quotes, member profiles are often stacked with digital-dorm "whiteboard" messages from friends and acquaintances, whether on-campus or remote. The latest fad in Facebook "wall" hangings is to post large old-style digital drawings, often of a somewhat sexy figure, made of typed characters (such as ^^ for cat ears).

"College users are inviting high schoolers to seed the networks. From there, high schoolers can invite their friends, and the network expands."
--Chris Hughes, spokesman, Facebook

Now backed by Peter Thiel, a co-founder of eBay's PayPal division, and by Accel Partners, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based venture capital firm, Zuckerberg on Sept. 2 launched a high-school version of Facebook that could catch on as quickly as its college-centric big brother.

"College users are inviting high schoolers to seed the networks. From there, high schoolers can invite their friends, and the network expands," Hughes said. Viral marketing like this has proven successful for programs such as Friendster and Google's Gmail.

Given how many people use the site as a regular means of communication, Greeks aren't the only ones learning to be mindful of what they post on Facebook. At Boston College, some freshmen were warned by their resident assistants that using the site as a dorm party announcement vehicle isn't such a great idea.

"Before school started, a bunch of guys on the first floor were planning this party for the first night and did it via Facebook," freshman Tori Buerschaper said in an instant-message interview. "In the message board on the invite, there were people talking about how they were getting alcohol and why it might be BYOB (bring your own beer)...but it ended up not happening because the RAs caught wind of it," she said.

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The Boston College frosh quickly learned to spread party plans by word-of-mouth. Meanwhile, most Facebook members nationwide are staying out of trouble in their profiles and using the site for what it's worth. "The whole point" of Facebook, according to Buerschaper, "is to find people with the same general interests as you or who are in the same classes. It's not like a personal ad."

Buerschaper advises not posting anything "too personal--and preferably no alcohol pics." One of her hallmates took her dorm room number down from her profile after "random people came to our room...Maybe they were drunk and bored?" Or maybe worse.

Facebook's Hughes agreed that "students should share only as much information as they feel comfortable," though he emphasized one site feature designed to make members feel safe about keeping their profiles candid.

"Facebook, unlike most Web sites, works similar to a gated community: Only other students at your school (as well as those whose profiles are linked to yours) can see your profile," he said. "When signing up and putting up information, you're not giving that info out to millions of random people but instead only (to) the members of your own collegiate community."

Still, there's such a thing as Facebook etiquette. In an August column for Bowling Green State University's BG News, D.J. Johnson advised fellow students to "not put any information that you don't want computer geeks to take advantage of. In reality, just by having your e-mail address and a picture online makes the rest of your life pretty accessible to the entire school. Don't make it any easier by putting (up) your phone number."

Johnson also recommended that his readers not "create or join groups of which you wouldn't be proud to tell your mother you're an 'active' member. Being a member of 'Drink Irresponsibly...or Don't Drink at All' or 'I Like to Put My Hands Down My Pants' isn't going to help you pick up any women. It's just gross."