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Universities Ponder Facebook Etiquette

By Sarah Schweitzer
THE BOSTON GLOBE

Last school year, Brandeis University junior Emily Aronoff tapped this sentiment into a computer: “I enjoy the festive greens.”

The reference to marijuana became part of her profile on facebook.com, the online student catalogue that allows Aronoff and tens of thousands of collegians to share photos and idiosyncratic odds and ends of their lives, intended for viewing by other students.

But others were reading as well — including “an individual in the community,” she said, who shared the reference with her parents in Marietta, Ga. Eventually, word reached her grandmother.

“My bubbe,” she said, using the Yiddish word for grandmother, “told me her seniors home was abuzz with the news, and I was like: ‘I hate the Facebook.”’

As the Facebook has become a phenomenon at schools across the country — a virtual bible for campus socializing and networking — the unintended consequences of overly comprehensive, brutally frank, or mischievous entries are surfacing.

Colleges and universities are increasingly taking steps to help students avoid pitfalls — most critically, those that put students at risk for stalking and harassment. At Tufts University this year, freshmen-orientation leaders encouraged students to omit detailed personal information from their profiles, such as dormitory room numbers and class schedules. Boston College plans to do the same next year, and Boston University has instructed residential advisers on offering guidance on Facebook matters.

Meanwhile, Brandeis held an hour-long seminar last week on Facebook savvy — recommending safety tips, but also telling students to consider future employers, professors, or family members who might read Facebook entries. Indeed, some Brandeis administrators said at the meeting — to open-mouthed reactions of students attending — that they have begun reading Facebook entries before hiring a student for campus positions.

School officials noted that they are in an odd position when it comes to the Facebook. The online site is privately operated and not officially affiliated with colleges or universities. Some administrators say they believe the site should be a student domain in which young people feel free to express themselves in language and photos that are authentic representations, and not dressed up for adult eyes.

“This is a community forum, and I don’t want to goof it up,” said Kenneth Elmore, dean of students at Boston University. “I think that would put some people in a real tough spot.”

And yet, administrators say they feel some obligation to ensure that students do not unintentionally step into an online minefield — such as the rants or brusque language on blogs, personal Web sites, and public message boards that have led some businesses to fire or discipline employees.

“It’s not appropriate for us to be policing the site,” said Alwina Bennett, the associate dean of students at Brandeis. “But we do need to educate them about how to make good choices and foresee consequences.”

Entries in the Facebook, launched in February 2004 by Harvard undergraduates who started the same service for high school students this month, have propelled some students into trouble.