Dan DeSalva was thrilled to receive a thick envelope from Northwestern in the mail last December. After reading and re-reading his acceptance letter and notifying his family of his Early Decision acceptance, he promptly joined the Facebook group for Northwestern’s class of 2013.
DeSalva noticed something unsettling: The group’s creator, Justin Gaither, was also responsible for “Class of 2013″ Facebook groups at various other universities. He had heard of others getting messages and friend requests from Gaither, and while the situation certainly seemed creepy, he didn’t think much of it.
Brad Ward, the Electronic Communication Coordinator in the Office of Admission at Butler University, was also suspicious of the creator of his university’s 2013 group, Patrick Kelly. He looked up the name on Butler’s database and found that Kelly had neither applied to nor been accepted by the university. After more searching, Ward learned the creators of various groups for next year’s college freshmen were employees of College Prowler, a company that publishes guidebooks “for students by students” for American universities.
Ward broke the news Dec. 18 on his higher education blog, and within hours his post received a flood of comments, including one from Luke Skurman, CEO of College Prowler. Ward’s discovery raises many questions about privacy and misrepresentation on the Internet.
According to Skurman, College Prowler intended to use the Facebook groups as a marketing tool. The plan was for all group members to receive a message urging them to check out College Prowler’s free online database offering tips from students at over 200 universities regarding anything from a school’s party scene to the attractiveness of its students.
However, these messages were never sent, and it didn’t help that College Prowler did not announce its presence in each group. The breaking news on Ward’s blog led to speculation about what information, exactly, College Prowler sought from these students and why they couldn’t be up front about obtaining it.
“In hindsight, I think we definitely did not do an effective job disclosing what our intentions were…that’s where we failed,” Skurman said in an interview, adding that College Prowler employees never messaged any group members, friend-requested anyone or wrote on the walls.
While Skurman claimed “full responsibility” for the incident, he noted that his company unwisely teamed with Match U, a company similar to College Prowler and in its early stages of development. He said that while the two companies made an agreement to simultaneously control the Facebook groups, Match U employees were the only ones adding students as friends and creating the fake profiles that DeSalva described.
“When we got wind of what Match U was doing, we immediately removed ourselves from the groups,” Skurman said. Match U representatives could not be reached.
Skurman insists that his company never aimed to take advantage of students.
“We are a company created by students, for students,” he said. “We would never do anything that would spam them or harm them.”
Ward noted that perhaps a bit more openness could have prevented the controversy.
“I think if they had been more transparent, even a small tag of ‘This group sponsored by College Prowler’, the situation would not have been as big,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Many students at Northwestern expressed ambivalence upon hearing about College Prowler’s presence in their groups.
Upon discovering that the original Northwestern group was deleted after the incident, incoming freshman Ally Byers created a new group to ensure that it was run by real students. She thinks that incidents like this are a natural byproduct of social networking sites.
“I probably should care more than I do about what information is on my profile,” she said. “But I still want to get to know people in the group.”
While Byers acknowledged that the incident has certainly made her more aware of what information strangers can access on her profile, she’s not about to deactivate her Facebook completely.
“Now, I just make sure that information like my address, phone number and other contact information aren’t listed,” she said.
“I think the main concern surrounding the situation was the lack of authenticity and transparency,” Ward said. “While they may not have done anything wrong legally, there is always the ethical dilemma of what’s right and wrong on the Web.”
Steven Duke, an associate professor at Medill who teaches a course on the Internet and the changing media landscape, says that one of the consequences of the digital age is increased accountability for one’s online actions.
“Because of the Internet and the research capabilities we have now, you can’t get away with things like this anymore,” he said. “[Brad Ward] did a journalistic job [by exposing College Prowler]. He wasn’t necessarily a journalist, but he ended up doing a journalist’s job.”