Celebrated as the best thing to happen to college since the dorm, Facebook is graduating to the world of business. The popular social networking site, which has more than 7 million users at more than 2,000 colleges, has already expanded to include high schools.
Now, it's adding work networks to its roster -- 4,000 of them, according to Chris Hughes, a Facebook spokesman.
But the prospect of employers, co-workers, or even family browsing the network's intimate -- and often uninhibited -- pictures and posts has sent more than a few students scrambling to sanitize their profiles, suggesting that, as the site expands, it risks outgrowing its core audience of party-happy college students.
Created in 2003 by Harvard student Mark Zuckerburg, Facebook quickly spread to campuses across the United States, and it now claims the attention of more than 80 percent of the United States' undergraduate population -- 20 minutes of it a day, according to a ComScore survey. And that's only on average. For some students, the Facebook is a way of life.
"I'd say I spend about an hour on it day, maybe more," said Shakthi Nataraj, a sophomore at the University of Chicago and a self-described "Facebook addict." Nataraj said the figure was standard for her friends.
The Web site's appeal is in part a result of usefulness: Users can track friends by browsing their profiles, which display pictures, contact information, group affiliations and even who they're dating. It's a photo album, address book, social calendar and gossip column all rolled into one.
Exhaustive profiles and innumerable pictures of boozy parties testify to the collegiate appetite for voyeurism and exhibitionism. But how that exhibitionism fits into the corporate world is an open question.
Students have already gotten into trouble with college administrators over unsavory content, but opening up the site to the business world increases the size of the potential audience while narrowing the range of acceptable behavior.
"These profiles can be fun to the point of not being appropriate for an employer to look at," said Kara Lombardi, an associate director at Duke University's Career Center. Lewd content had already led to a student being passed over for a job at Duke, Lombardi said, but she noted that the profiles could be used to students' advantage.
"If, for example, I'm looking for a job at Goldman Sachs I might consider representing myself in a way on my Facebook profile that would be consistent with a Goldman Sachs employee," she said.
That kind of talk is enough to make students like Nataraj want to kick the Facebook habit.
"If it's just a resume with pictures I don't see any point in its existence at all," she said. "That's not what your friends want to know about you."
Hughes downplayed the tension between the network's nascent role as professional network and its established one as a kind of online student hangout. "It's really more of an overlap," he said.
But Hughes also said he understood users might want to present a different face to different people, and hinted that changes in the way job holders and students interact on the site were still possible.
"What Facebook is right now, and how it's working at the college and professional levels, (that) doesn't mean it's going to be like that in six months," he said.
In the meantime, the psychological impact of knowing that what was once considered an extension of the college dorm is now being stalked by parents and employers may alone be enough to scare students cleaning up their online act.
Joshua Robinson, a senior at Johns Hopkins University, said that since finding out his father used Facebook to screen job applicants he has been careful to remove anything from his profile "that could be misinterpreted by a family member or a potential employer."
He said cleaning up a Facebook profile was "the equivalent of making sure your socks match before you go into the job interview. You might assume nobody's really going to see it, but if they happen to look, you want to make sure they match."
As students -- and professionals -- weigh the impact of their online presentation, Facebook's graduation to the corporate world seems likely to put a damper on the exuberance of its college years. Zuckerburg himself put it best, in an interview with The Harvard Crimson when the Facebook was still in its infancy.
"At one point I thought about making the Web site so that you could upload a resume too, and for a fee companies could search for Harvard job applicants. But I don't want to touch that," he said. "It would make everything more serious and less fun."