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MySpace, TheirSpace

| Sunday, March 26, 2006

College graduates wouldn't consider arriving for a job interview naked.

They wouldn't walk in, shake hands with the interviewer and say "Hi, I'm John (expletive) Smith."

They wouldn't carry a sign that reads, "I drank alcohol on a weekly basis before I turned 21," or "I hate white people," or "I committed a crime this weekend."

But a growing number of college graduates might as well.

In fact, they already have because they created personal Web sites, posted inappropriate photos of themselves and wrote things they wouldn't dream of saying to someone in person.

And their potential employer has seen it all.

Welcome to the world of Internet social networking. It's a place, many places in fact, where today's young people let their hair down and connect, they hope, with other like-minded people.

Problem is, the Internet is available to everyone -- including people whose job it is to dig up the dirt on prospective employees.

Employers, bankers, insurance brokers, and college admissions officers are becoming wise by using social networking and blogging sites as an addition to traditional background checks, such as credit and criminal history.

The more than 70 million people using these sites make it easy for anyone who wants to learn about them.

"Unfortunately, I think most of the people who are posting those are only thinking about their intended readers," said Steven Rothberg, president and founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, the highest traffic career site used by students, recent graduates, and employers.

"If you're a 20-year-old college student and you like to get drunk on the weekends, you're probably going to put that on your profile because you want to hook up with other people that do the same."

But Rothberg said the reality students don't consider is that there are unintended readers.

He said officials for large companies and graduate schools he works with often question him about MySpace.

"My best guess is fewer than 10 percent of employers use social networking sites to run background checks on potential employees," Rothberg said. "But that number is growing rapidly and should be a great concern to any candidate that posts what they consider to be private information on the Internet, which to me is an oxymoron."

Career services offices at universities across the country are working to protect students from unfortunate experiences by educating them about how widely used social sites are.

"It's very important to educate the students about how public their information is when they're using MySpace," said Barb Juliussen from the University of Pittsburgh's Career Services office.

Juliussen said Pitt student-athletes were warned to be cautious when using the sites as well. She said the athletic department monitors them.

She said one site also created problems for two homecoming candidates last year.

The candidates announced they were running for Homecoming before school's rules allowed -- both were disqualified.

Pennsylvania State University police used Facebook to identify 50 students who stormed the field after the football game against Ohio State this past season.

Naively, the students formed a Facebook group that university police said was titled something like "I stormed the field after Ohio State game."

Police officers were searching for another student who was accused of online harassment when they stumbled upon the group, complete with university e-mails and pictures that clearly incriminated the students.

Punishments for the students ranged from warnings to suspensions.

Rothberg said it goes further than jobs and college campuses.

He said some car insurance representatives are viewing Internet sites to see if the driver they're considering is a big drinker.

Even people who don't know how to use social networking sites are Internet-savvy enough to do a simple Google search, Rothberg said, which can lead them to online profiles causing more bad news for users.

Google and other search engines are designed to index all the data that's out on the Internet, including a MySpace profile you may not want viewed in 10 years.

Timothy Pivnichny, a Pittsburgh FBI agent who does forensic examinations for computer crime cases, said Web site caching is similar to going to a site, liking what you see, and copying it to your computer.

He said that's what search engines do. Then, when somebody wants to look at that page, but it's no longer posted, it can still be retrieved.

"Tomorrow, if you say you want to take something out of MySpace, you have no way of controlling how many people are downloading it to their local computer," Pivnichny said. "At any given time -- MSN, Yahoo, Google -- they're all over the world, sending out requests to index all the data on the Internet. The minute you choose to put something out there, the second you hit the send button, you've lost total control over how that info will be disseminated."

Students aren't the only people out there willing to defend the value of sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

Bernie Punt, director of sales and marketing at the Bryce Jordan Center at Penn State, found an innovative way to use Facebook.

Punt said ticket sales for student concerts have almost doubled since he began using the site to research students' favorite musicians. When students sign up, they fill out a questionnaire about music, movies, TV shows and other things they like.

Punt searches through the profiles and compiles marketing information he passes on to agents and producers in the music industry. "Traditionally, agents and promoters would want to reach students through regular advertising," Punt said. "But they're not watching TV, listening to the radio or reading a newspaper. When they get home to their dorm or apartment, they're almost addicted to this Web site, this social network."

By using Facebook, Punt has been able to bring musicians such as Kanye West and Black Eyed Peas to the Bryce Jordan Center.

Chris Hughes, a spokesman for Facebook, said the site may particularly benefit Punt because Penn State has the largest number of Facebook users in the country.

Hughes said 58,388 students and staff at Penn State use Facebook, followed by 51,411 at Texas A&M.

He said students love the versatility of the site.

"When a name comes up in conversation in a college dorm room, there's a place for students to turn to get more information about the person," Hughes said. "In general, people are returning to the site to find information on their peers, to make connections with friends and acquaintances, and to communicate with one another. The fact that it's so many things at once -- a reference tool, a means for communication, and a clean, fun site to use -- is the central reason that people come back daily."

Representatives from MySpace and Facebook said the companies are determined to create features people want to use, whether it's a place to listen to or post music, famous musicians premiering songs online, or trailers for movies.

And both companies boast goals to keeping users safe.

Facebook users have the option to block their profiles from other students, faculty, or alumni of their sites, Hughes said. This can prove a good option for students who don't want alumni who now work in human resources for major corporations to hold information on their sites against them when it comes to employment.

Dani Dudeck, a spokeswoman for MySpace, said the company dedicates nearly a third of its 290-person work force to ensuring the site's safety guidelines are followed.

"The measures they can take range from deleting content, deleting profiles, or involving law enforcement," she said. "When the safety of our users is called into question, we work with local, state, and federal law enforcement in any way we can."

Dudeck said staff members review more than 2 million images every day. They also search for anyone younger than 14 who's using the site, which is against the rules.

"To date, we've deleted more than 200,000 underage user profiles," Dudeck said.

Young people are responding to negative media attention of MySpace and other social networks. They want adults to know they're being responsible online, using the sites mainly for communication with friends.

Three area students interviewed for this story said they use caution when posting pictures and details on their profiles.

"There's nothing vulgar on my site because I'm not like that," said Michelle, 16. "I guess it doesn't really matter, but I don't want anything bad to go on there so it looks like I'm a bad kid."

Michelle, whose last name and high school were purposely omitted to maintain the anonymity law enforcement personnel encourage students to preserve, is linked to 140 friends through MySpace.

She said although she uses the site mostly to message her friends, she has encountered distasteful language and photographs on the site.

"Some kids from school have (profanity, partial nudity, etc.) on there," Michelle said. "I think it just makes them look bad, and they're just looking for attention."

Gerria, 20, uses Facebook to keep in touch with friends.

She sites her interests as sports and shopping, displays relatively clean photographs of her with friends at parties, and claims "I'm all about having a good time and making people smile."

With more than 400 friends linked to her profile, Gerria also admits she's seen some disturbing images online.

"Some of (the pictures) look like a model shoot," Gerria said, laughing. "Sometimes it's just like they're trying too hard, especially on MySpace. The younger girls are really portraying themselves wrong."

Although law enforcement officials say people who use social networks shouldn't publish full names, high schools, hometowns and places of employment, 17-year-old Tara said she's seen friends doing just that.

"There have been a few friends of mine with first and last names and their hometown," said Tara, who has 100 MySpace friends. "I've sort of indirectly told them that's a scary thing to put on there. Some of them get the point. For some, though, it's in one ear and out the other."

Additional Information:

The 411 on MySpace and Facebook

  • MySpace.com was launched in January 2004 by President Tom Anderson and CEO Chris DeWolfe, partners who met working for an unsuccessful dot-com company.

    According to Dani Dudeck, a company spokeswoman, MySpace is one of the internet's fastest growing sites with more than 64 million members and more hits per day than Google and AOL. As many as 250,000 people a day are joining, with more than 6 million new members each month, Dudeck said.

    The company has already launched MySpace Records which will sign bands discovered through the site. MySpace officials also plan to develop a few independent films each year.

  • Facebook.com launched in February 2004 and has 7 million users in the United States. The Web site also is used by students in 14 other countries.

    Unlike other social networks, Facebook creates a real-life network within each university or high school community it serves.

    For example, only people with a University of Pittsburgh .edu email address can view Facebook users from that university.

    The site ranks seventh in overall internet traffic, one spot behind Google, according to a company spokesman, and the site gets about 300 million page views in any 24-hour period.

    Although Facebook and MySpace are the most popular social networking sites, they're not the only two out there. Parents should also be aware of Xanga.com, LiveJournal.com, and Friendster.com.

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