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Professors studying social-networking sites

July 31, 2007|By JENNIFER FITCH

MONT ALTO, Pa. - Penn State University professor Alfred Mueller doesn't have a MySpace or Facebook page.

His undergraduate research assistant, Kevin Kellar, has gotten rid of his.

Yet, the pair are getting more and more engrossed in the social-networking sites as they study the ethos and ethics associated with them.

"It's a really hot topic today because there's a lot going on," Mueller said.

Just Monday, in fact, the New York Times reported about convicted sex offenders who had registered on Facebook and posted "inappropriate images and content."

Mueller and Kellar plan to add that new information into the paper they are hoping to present and publish in October.

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The paper examines invasion of privacy issues in cases like that of Stacy Snyder. The former Millersville University student is in federal court over the school's denial of her bachelor's degree in education, after it found a MySpace photo of her possibly consuming alcohol.

Much of the pair's research follows media reports about social-networking sites. Awareness of the sites has boomed in just two years, Mueller said.

In October 2005, Penn State fans rushed the field at an Ohio State football game. Authorities used the sites to identify the participants.

"That got a little bit of attention, not national attention," said Mueller, who teaches at the Mont Alto campus.

Now, many businesses are using MySpace, Facebook and similar sites to research applicants for employment, according to Mueller.

People create the pages to connect with others and create personas, Mueller said.

"We want to have people view us in a particular way," Mueller said.

He likens the whole process to a bus ride.

"It's like getting on a public bus. I'm carving out my space," Mueller said.

Certain rules must be followed to stay on the bus/site, like no nudity. However, other actions can be allowed and still judged by others.

"If I'm on the bus and I'm picking my nose, I can't pretend like it's not noticed. I have to understand it's going to gross people out," Mueller said.

People create characters (like a studious teenager pretending to be a frequent party-goer) that are then assessed by not only peers, but also potential or current employers, college officials and, in some cases, law enforcement.

"We have a human desire to judge people as right or wrong. (As a site user) I don't have a right to expect no one's going to make a judgment about me," Mueller said.

On the other hand, business owners can appreciate applicants or employees with healthy social lives, he said.

"You should just use common sense. If I was to do this in front of my parents, would that fly?" Mueller said.

Web sites create a false sense of anonymity, but an increased number of people are realizing the openness, according to Mueller.

"If I'm in a face-to-face conversation, I have to self edit," he said. "A lot of students are taking down their MySpace and Facebook pages."

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