There are telemarketers who endlessly call your home and spam e-mails that constantly clog your inbox. Now, advertisers have flooded in through Facebook.
Although Facebook has encountered few problems on its way to becoming the leading social networking site, trouble arose at the onset of the Fall 2008 semester, when students responded to the redesigned interface of Facebook with an uproar of complaints. Many improved features were implemented that initially disappointed millions of users.
“I didn’t want to have to learn a whole new system for something I have been using for over a year,” said freshman engineering major Jenna Fink, one of 140 million Facebook users forced to adjust to the revamped interface.
After a semester, students are better acquainted with the new Facebook and find it more user-friendly.
“Technology is always changing, and our generation needs to learn to adapt it. After using it for this long, I forget what the old Facebook was like,” said Jonathan Heberlig, a freshman marketing major.
But the social networking Web site quickly encountered a new challenge.
A new form of guerrilla marketing called virtual squatting has recently surfaced. The system begins when advertisers create fake Facebook accounts and masquerade themselves as students, tagging “friends” in commercial pictures and even hijacking popular groups.
The mastermind behind the most recent case of viral spam was Pittsburgh-based College Prowler, a company that publishes college guidebooks. Using Craigslist advertisements, the company’s representatives hired “marketing interns” to do its dirty work and pose as students on Facebook.
The false name Justin Gaither showed up in five pages of accounts, each with different colleges, all in the Class of 2011. The name also appeared in dozens of college groups, including “Temple’s Class of 2013” group.
Groups made for particular graduating classes often allow for incoming freshmen to ease their high-school-to-college transitions.
Fink was a member of the “Temple Class of 2012” group and said “it was really helpful when current students answered questions.”
“I got information of how to use OWLnet, where to buy my books, and I also met some future classmates during the summer. I’m going to know these people for the next four years, so I figured that the earlier the better,” she said.
Using aliases like Justin Gaither, a team of spammers gained control of class groups from colleges and universities throughout the country. They accumulated huge amounts of data collections such as student e-mail addresses, which are posted on their “Info” pages.
Next year’s freshmen fell victim to the recent spam, as more than 500 different Class of 2013 groups were deleted in late December. Included was “Temple’s Class of 2013,” which contained approximately 500 members at the time. Danielle Stanford, a freshman engineering major, was in the group since September 2008 and became the top administrator two months later.
Brad J. Ward, marketing specialist from the University of Illinois at Springfield, estimated the spammers seized more than 500 class groups, reaching nearly 1 million incoming freshmen around the world.
“There was never any indication that the group was there to serve as any other purpose than for us incoming freshmen to connect with each other and ask Temple students for information via the discussion board,” Stanford said. “The destruction of the Temple ‘13 group was a loss because there was so much information available to us via the site. I have no idea what happened.”
“The original purpose was to use these groups as a way to inform students that they can access a free guide about their new college on our site,” College Prowler’s CEO Luke Skurman said.
In an effort to make amends, Skurman removed any names associated with the company on Facebook.
“It was an aggressive marketing tactic that backfired,” Ward said.
Because of the squatting, Facebook deactivated “all suspicious accounts involved,” as well as hundreds of Class of 2013 groups for precautionary reasons, leaving some of next year’s freshmen outraged.
“It kind of sucked to have to join a different group that was already in existence,” Stanford said. “I haven’t bothered trying to post the Web sites and all the information that was available on the first group because who knows what reason Facebook could find to delete this group, too.”
“It’s free and anyone can join,” reads Facebook’s homepage, but perhaps the phrase was a little too inviting.
Matthew Petrillo can be reached at email@example.com.