By Lisa Guernsey
July 27, 2008
Sunday afternoon used to mean lazing on the quad or sleeping off a hangover. No one could remember much about what happened the night before.
Now there’s a new ritual: reviewing Saturday night’s escapades. By nap time, party photographs are already posted on Facebook.com. Not surprisingly, they may reveal a little too much. Even more mortifying, they’ve likely been tagged — the individuals featured in the photos identified. The captioned images can be easily discovered by anyone on the photographer’s “friends” list, by friends of those tagged and even by entire city networks, depending on the users’ privacy settings.
Matt Jackson, a junior at the University of Washington, remembers waking up to half a dozen tagged photos the day after a party. “We’d all been drinking a little bit,” he says. “Well, not just a little bit.”
What’s a student on the job market to do? De-tag. Now.
De-tagging — removing your name from a Facebook photo — has become an image-saving step in the college party cycle. “The event happens, pictures are up within 12 hours, and within another 12 hours people are de-tagging,” says Chris Pund, a senior at Radford University in Virginia.
Campaigns to educate students about the pitfalls of Facebook — how professors, parents and prospective employers can use the social networking site to uncover information once considered private — have become a staple of freshman orientation sessions and career center clinics. Students are apparently listening.
“If I’m holding something I shouldn’t be holding, I’ll untag,” says Robyn Backer, a junior at Virginia Wesleyan College. She recalls how her high school principal saw online photos of partying students and suspended the athletes who were holding beer bottles but not those with red plastic cups. “And if I’m making a particularly ugly face, I’ll untag myself. Anything really embarrassing, I’ll untag.”
When it emerged in 2004, Facebook was open only to collegians at a handful of institutions. Today, it is available to anyone with a verifiable e-mail address and has 80 million active users. Default settings let any user view pictures, and tagged photos become part of your profile, open to your friends list and chosen network. Facebook has been hammered over privacy issues, and responded in March with new tools. Now settings are easier to reconfigure, and access can be customized to subsets of friends - school friends, work friends, beach-party friends - keeping others away from photos.
Still, students have Facebook friends they don’t know very well; even using restraint, friends lists grow large. As Ms. Backer reports, “I have no more than 200 friends on Facebook. I’m kind of picky.”
Despite the privacy concerns, Facebook hasn’t reined in its tagging application. According to comScore, Facebook has the No. 1 photo service on the Web — thanks in part to the tagging feature, says Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer. Students say it is easy to use and a convenient way to exchange and track pictures from friends. The tradeoff is you can’t pre-empt anyone from tagging your image. And because many Facebook users log in a dozen times a day, you have to act fast to disassociate yourself from a photo.
Jaclyn Mautone, a senior at Fairfield University in Connecticut, realized how embarrassing tags could be as she flipped through photos from spring break: “I’m like, ‘Oh, thank God that’s not me.’ Everyone is in bathing suits, but they haven’t had a chance to untag the photos yet.” Ms. Mautone advises against adding beach-party acquaintances to friends lists. “Maybe they are not even your friends, and they suddenly have this power to tag you.”
Jim Saksa, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the student newspaper recently about how in the main library one day he noticed a girl looking at pictures of him. He didn’t know her, but she apparently had access to a friend’s photo album. The experience, he says, brought home the idea that his image was out there, out of his control.
“Our generation is the first to cope with the necessary assumption that our every action seen by another may in turn be seen by all of our peers,” he wrote.
Part of the privacy gap comes from the ubiquity of digital cameras. Today’s students whip out tiny cameras or photo-capable cellphones at any occasion. “While people are taking photos, they will say, ‘Oh, you’re going to see this on Facebook!’ ” says Mr. Jackson of the University of Washington. Asking someone to remove a photo is just not part of Facebook culture.
While students say they see more caution in what’s being posted, seniors especially are tightening privacy controls. Early data from a study by Educause shows that 45 percent of students who use social-networking sites put “a lot” of restrictions on who can see their profile; 41 percent put “some.” Others are concerned enough to deactivate their accounts altogether.
Joel Carle, an education graduate student at the State University of New York, Fredonia, did so when he started hunting for teaching jobs, “just to be safe.”
Ms. Mautone has limited her photo album to friends only. She de-tags often. And she is using Facebook’s new privacy tool that lets her exclude a specific friend or group of friends from seeing photos she is tagged in — like the supervisor from her internship who “friended” her but is many years her senior. In short, her strategy is vigilance. “Stay on top of it,” she says, “and make sure you know who can see what.”