It’s the first truly cold day of fall on the campus green, but that doesn’t deter Algis Aukstolis. The junior advertising major grins as he grabs a megaphone and bounds toward the Gallagher Student Center, intercepting sleepy-eyed students on their way to class.
“Hey, you,” he yells. “Come take a survey. It’s about Facebook, it’ll only take 15 minutes and we have free candy.”
A handful of curious students follow him to the booth, where junior Rachael Jarnigan and sophomores Lindsay Cornell and Becky Hoerr register them for the survey.
The group is helping assistant professor of communication arts Thomas Wagner with a research project on Facebook.com, which is arguably the most popular web site today among college students. Wagner is trying to find out how much someone can learn about another person based solely on the information garnered from a few minutes of reading his or her Facebook profile.
“Facebook is becoming, at Xavier and other schools, a normalized part of a student’s everyday habit,” says Wagner. “We wanted to see why that is, and, from a communications angle, if the web site helps users reduce insecurities about people they meet just from accessing information found in their profile.”
So Wagner and his students set up a Facebook booth for two days on the campus green, persuading more than 160 students to take the survey that will form the basis of the research. Begun by two Harvard students in 2004 as a way of electronically updating the university’s yearbook, Facebook.com now has 10 million registered users—including nearly 5,000 Xavier students and alumni—with about 20,000 new accounts being created daily worldwide. Students create profiles of themselves in which all areas of personal information— from photos to blogs to dating status—are shared with other users. It is this sharing option that has made many people critical of the site. Students can censor their own data, but it is commonplace for them to willingly post personal information and photos of themselves on their profile. Some fear that this exposes the students to unnecessary threats and dangers—and not just from other students but also from those in authority positions. It’s not uncommon for others to monitor Facebook for inappropriate activity. At several universities, including nearby Northern Kentucky University, students were disciplined after school officials saw photos on a Facebook page of illicit drinking. Other students have been disciplined—even expelled—for posting threatening or suggestive comments. Some have even lost potential jobs because employers search the site as a means of reference.
Xavier keeps close tabs on the profiles of its resident assistants and other student leaders, reminding them to keep clean, parent- and student-friendly profiles. But Facebook remains a top web site at Xavier, and Wagner and his students can confirm that, as they are busy reviewing the results of what turned out to be a popular survey. Although the complete results of the research will not be finalized until later this winter, Wagner is optimistic. “I feel that the study, so far, has reasonably reflected the reality we assumed,” he says. “Facebook is really a proxy to communication. It reduces uncertainty and helps the user gain knowledge about others. That way, they can retain information and get to know someone better and sooner.”
The survey, he says, has confirmed that users at Xavier spend an average of one hour a day on the site, and they use it mostly to gather information about other users.
It is this time spent that also concerns some faculty and parents. Does Facebook distract students from homework and other activities? “Sure, the same way that television or video games distract students,” Wagner says. “But it seems to be a healthy distraction, in that it can enhance relationships. So far, this study has shown that this is not the most important thing that students do all day, but it is just a part of their daily life, like checking their e-mail.”
And that routine will most likely be around for a while.
“I think this is a lasting tool,” Wagner says. “I can see video ability being added to the site in the next year or so, and that will only heighten its popularity.”
And that seems to suit Xavier students just fine.